Military history


Tongues of Fire

At the end of March 1945, as Curtis LeMay’s bombers shuttled back and forth burning cities, Colonel Elmer E. Kirkpatrick, a plainspoken Army engineer, arrived in the Marianas to locate a small corner where he could lodge Paul Tibbets’ 509th Composite Group.2476 Kirkpatrick met with LeMay and then with Pacific Fleet commander Chester Nimitz on Guam on the day he arrived, March 30, and found the commanding officers cooperative. LeMay personally flew Kirkpatrick to Tinian on April 3. The next day, he reported to Groves, he “covered most of the island [and] decided on our sites and the planning forces went to work on layouts.” Though there was no shortage of B-29’s, he found that cement and buildings were scarce; “housing and life here is a little rugged for everyone except [general] officers & the Navy. Tents or open barracks.” Kirkpatrick flew back to Guam on April 5 “to dig up some materials some place” and “to get authority for the work I required,” threaded his way through the Air Force and Navy chains of command with his letters of authority from Washington and by the end of the day had seen a telex sent to Saipan “directing them to give me enough material to get the essential things done.” A Navy construction battalion—the SeaBees—would build the buildings and hardstands and dig the pits from which the bombs, too large for ground-level clearance, would be lifted up into the bomb bays of Tibbets’ B-29’s.

By early June, when Tibbets arrived to inspect the accommodations and confer with LeMay, Kirkpatrick could report that “progress has been very satisfactory and I have the feeling now that we can’t miss.” He sat in on an evening meeting between Tibbets and LeMay and heard evidence that the Twentieth Air Force commander did not yet appreciate the power of an atomic bomb:

LeMay does not favor high altitude bombing. Work is not as accurate but, more important, visibility at such altitudes is extremely poor especially during the period June to November. Tibbets advised him that the weapon would destroy a plane using it at an altitude of less than 25,000 feet.

Kirkpatrick demonstrated his progress to Groves with an impressive list: five warehouses, an administration building, roads and parking areas and nine magazines completed; pits completed except for lifts; hardstands for parking the 509th aircraft completed except for asphalt paving; generator buildings and compressor shed completed; one air-conditioned building where the bombs would be assembled to be completed by July 1; two more assembly buildings to be completed by August 1 and August 15. Of the 509th’s men more than 1,100 had already staged out by ship “and more [are] coming in every week.”

The first of Tibbets’ combat crews arrived June 10, flying themselves to Tinian in advanced, specially modified new B-29’s. The early-model aircraft delivered to the group the previous autumn had become obsolete, Tibbets explained to readers of the Saturday Evening Post after the war:

Tests showed us that the B-29’s we had weren’t good enough for atom bombing.2477 They were heavy, older types. Top cylinders were overheating and causing valve failures in the long climb to 30,000 feet at 80 per cent of full power. . . .

I asked for new, light-weight B-29’s and fuel-injection systems to replace carburetors.

He got those improvements and more: quick-closing pneumatic bomb doors, fuel flow meters, reversible electric propellers.

The new aircraft had been modified to accommodate the special bombs they would carry and the added crew. The cylindrical tunnel that connected the pressurized forward and waist sections of the plane had to be partly cut away and reworked so that the larger bomb, Fat Man, would fit in the forward bomb bay. Guide rails were installed to prevent the tail assemblies from hanging up during fallout. An extra table, chair, oxygen outlet and interphone station for the weaponeers responsible for monitoring a bomb during flight went in forward of the radio operator’s station in the forward section. “The performance of these special B-29’s was exceptional,” writes the engineer in charge of their procurement. “They were without doubt the finest B-29’s in the theater.”2478 By the end of June, eleven of the new bombers shone on their hardstands in the Pacific sun.2479

To men used to the blizzards and dust of Wendover, Utah, the 509th’s historian claims, Tinian “looked like the Garden of Paradise.”2480 The surrounding blue ocean and the palm groves may have occasioned that vision. Philip Morrison, who came out after Trinity to help assemble Fat Man, saw more reverberantly what the island had become, as he told a committee of U.S. Senators later in 1945:

Tinian is a miracle. Here, 6,000 miles from San Francisco, the United States armed forces have built the largest airport in the world. A great coral ridge was half-leveled to fill a rough plain, and to build six runways, each an excellent 10-lane highway, each almost two miles long. Beside these runways stood in long rows the great silvery airplanes. They were there not by the dozen but by the hundred. From the air this island, smaller than Manhattan, looked like a giant aircraft carrier, its deck loaded with bombers. . . .

And all these gigantic preparations had a grand and terrible outcome. At sunset some day the field would be loud with the roar of motors. Down the great runways would roll the huge planes, seeming to move slowly because of their size, but far outspeeding the occasional racing jeep. One after another each runway would launch its planes. Once every 15 seconds another B-29 would become air-borne. For an hour and a half this would continue with precision and order. The sun would go below the sea, and the last planes could still be seen in the distance, with running lights still on. Often a plane would fail to make the take-off, and go skimming horribly into the sea, or into the beach to burn like a huge torch. We came often to sit on the top of the coral ridge and watch the combat strike of the 313th wing in real awe. Most of the planes would return the next morning, standing in a long single line, like beads on a chain, from just overhead to the horizon. You could see 10 or 12 planes at a time, spaced a couple of miles apart. As fast as the near plane would land, another would appear on the edge of the sky. There were always the same number of planes in sight. The empty field would fill up, and in an hour or two all the planes would have landed.

A resemblance in shape between Tinian and Manhattan had inspired the SeaBees to name the island’s roads for New York City streets.2481 The 509th happened to be lodged immediately west of North Field at 125th Street and Eighth Avenue, near Riverside Drive, in Manhattan, the environs of Columbia University where Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard had identified secondary neutrons from fission: the wheel had come full circle.

“The first half of July,” Norman Ramsey writes of 509th activity, “was occupied with establishing and installing all of the technical facilities needed for assembly and test work at Tinian.”2482 In the meantime the group’s flight crews practiced navigating to Iwo Jima and back and bombing with standard general-purpose bombs and then with Pumpkins such bypassed islands still nominally in Japanese hands as Rota and Truk.

*   *   *

Harry Truman and Jimmy Byrnes left suburban Potsdam in an open car to tour ravaged Berlin at about the same time on July 16, 1945, that Groves and Oppenheimer at Trinity were preparing their first report of the tower shot’s success. The Potsdam Conference, appropriately coded TERMINAL, was supposed to have begun that afternoon, but Joseph Stalin was late arriving by armored train from Moscow. (He apparently suffered a mild heart attack the previous day.) The Berlin tour gave Truman an opportunity to view at close hand the damage Allied bombing and Red Army shelling had done.

Byrnes was officially Secretary of State now, invested in a sweltering ceremony in the White House Rose Garden on July 3 attended by a crowd of his former House, Senate and Supreme Court colleagues. After Byrnes swore the oath of office Truman had kidded him: “Jimmy, kiss the Bible.”2483 Byrnes complied, then gave as good as he got: passed the Bible to the President and bade him kiss it as well. Truman did so; understanding the byplay between the former Vice President and the man who had missed his turn, the crowd laughed. Four days later the two leaders boarded the cruiser Augusta for the Atlantic crossing to Antwerp and now they rode side by side into Berlin, conquerors in snap-brim hats and natty worsteds.

Though he had arrived before them in Potsdam, Henry Stimson did not accompany the President and his favorite adviser on their tour. The Secretary of War had consulted with Truman the day before Byrnes’ swearing-in—proposing to give the Japanese “a warning of what is to come and definite opportunity to capitulate”—and as he was leaving had asked the President plaintively if he had not invited his Secretary of War to attend the forthcoming conference out of solicitude for his health.2484 That was it, Truman had said quickly, and Stimson had replied that he could manage the trip and would like to go, that Truman ought to have advice “from the top civilians in our Department.”2485 The next day, the day of Byrnes’ investiture, Truman accorded the elderly statesman permission. But Stimson had traveled separately on the military transport Brazil via Marseilles, was lodged separately in Potdam from the President and his Secretary of State and would not be included in their daily private discussions. One of Stimson’s aides felt that “Secretary Byrnes was a little resentful of Mr. Stimson’s presence there. . . .2486 The Secretary of the Navy wasn’t there so why should Mr. Stimson be there?” Byrnes in his 1947 account of his career, Speaking Frankly, narrates an entire chapter about Potsdam without once mentioning Stimson’s name, relegating his rival to a brief separate discussion of the decision to use the atomic bomb on Japan and awarding him there the dubious honor of having chosen the targets. In fact, Stimson at Potsdam would be reduced to serving Truman and Byrnes as not much more than a messenger boy. But the messages he brought were fateful.

“We reviewed the Second Armored Division,” Truman reports his Berlin tour in his impromptu diary, “ . . . Gen. [J. H.] Collier, who seemed to know his stuff, put us in a reconnaissance car built with side seats and no top, just like a hoodlum wagon minus the top, or a fire truck with seats and no hose, and we drove slowly down a mile and a half of good soldiers and some millions of dollars worth of equipment—which had amply paid its way to Berlin.”2487 The destroyed city fired an uneasy burst of associations:

Then we went on to Berlin and saw absolute ruin. Hitler’s folly. He overreached himself by trying to take in too much territory. He had no morals and his people backed him up. Never did I see a more sorrowful sight, nor witness retribution to the nth degree. . . .

I thought of Carthage, Baalbec, Jerusalem, Rome, Atlantis; Peking, Babylon, Nineveh; Scipio, Rameses II, Titus, Hermann, Sherman, Jenghis Khan, Alexander, Darius the Great. But Hitler only destroyed Stalingrad—and Berlin. I hope for some sort of peace—but I fear that machines are ahead of morals by some centuries and when morals catch up perhaps there’ll be no reason for any of it.

I hope not. But we are only termites on a planet and maybe when we bore too deeply into the planet there’ll be a reckoning—who knows?

The “Proposed Program for Japan” that Stimson had offered to Truman on July 2 had reckoned up that country’s situation—which included the possible entry of the Soviet Union, at present neutral, into the Pacific war—and judged it desperate:2488

Japan has no allies.

Her navy is nearly destroyed and she is vulnerable to a surface and underwater blockade which can deprive her of sufficient food and supplies for her population.

She is terribly vulnerable to our concentrated air attack upon her crowded cities, industrial and food resources.

She has against her not only the Anglo-American forces but the rising forces of China and the ominous threat of Russia.

We have inexhaustible and untouched industrial resources to bring to bear against her diminishing potential.

We have great moral superiority through being the victim of her first sneak attack.

On the other hand, Stimson had argued, because of the mountainous Japanese terrain and because “the Japanese are highly patriotic and certainly susceptible to calls for fanatical resistance to repel an invasion,” America would probably “have to go through with an even more bitter finish fight than in Germany” if it attempted to invade. Was there, then, any alternative? Stimson thought there might be:

I believe Japan is susceptible to reason in such a crisis to a much greater extent than is indicated by our current press and other current comment. Japan is not a nation composed wholly of mad fanatics of an entirely different mentality from ours. On the contrary, she has within the past century shown herself to possess extremely intelligent people, capable in an unprecedentedly short time of adopting not only the complicated technique of Occidental civilization but to a substantial extent their culture and their political and social ideas. Her advance in these respects . . . has been one of the most astounding feats of national progress in history. . . .

It is therefore my conclusion that a carefully timed warning be given to Japan. . . .

I personally think that if in [giving such a warning] we should add that we do not exclude a constitutional monarchy under her present dynasty, it would substantially add to the chances of acceptance.

Within the text of his proposal the Secretary of War several times characterized it as “the equivalent of an unconditional surrender,” but others did not see it so. Before Byrnes left for Potsdam he had carried the document to ailing Cordell Hull, a fellow Southerner and Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of State from 1933 to 1944, and Hull had immediately plucked out the concession to the “present dynasty”—the Emperor Hirohito, in whose mild myopic figure many Americans had personified Japanese militarism—and told Byrnes that “the statement seemed too much like appeasement of Japan.”2489

It may have been, but by the time they arrived in Potsdam, Stimson, Truman and Byrnes had learned that it was also the minimum condition of surrender the Japanese were prepared to countenance, whatever their desperate situation. U.S. intelligence had intercepted and decoded messages passing between Tokyo and Moscow instructing Japanese ambassador Naotake Sato to attempt to interest the Soviets in mediating a Japanese surrender. “The foreign and domestic situation for the Empire is very serious,” Foreign Minister Shigenori Togo had cabled Sato on July 11, “and even the termination of the war is now being considered privately. . . .2490 We are also sounding out the extent to which we might employ the USSR in connection with the termination of the war. . . . [This is] a matter with which the Imperial Court is . . . greatly concerned.” And pointedly on July 12:

It is His Majesty’s heart’s desire to see the swift termination of the war. . . . However, as long as America and England insist on unconditional surrender our country has no alternative but to see it through in an all-out effort for the sake of survival and the honor of the homeland.2491

Unconditional surrender seemed to the Japanese leadership a demand to give up its essential and historic polity, a demand that under similar circumstances Americans also might hesitate to meet even at the price of their lives: hence Stimson’s careful qualification of his proposed terms of surrender. But to the extent that the imperial institution was tainted with militarism, an offer to preserve it might also seem an offer to preserve the militaristic government that ran the country and that had started and pursued the war. Certainly many Americans might think so and might conclude in consequence that their wartime sacrifices were being callously betrayed.

Hull considered these difficulties while Byrnes sailed the Atlantic and sent along a cable of further advice on July 16. The Japanese might reject a challenge to surrender, the former Secretary of State argued, even if it allowed the Emperor to remain on the throne. In that case not only would the militarists among them be encouraged by what they would take to be a sign of weakening Allied will, but also “terrible political repercussions would follow in the U.S. . . . Would it be well first to await the climax of Allied bombing and Russia’s entry into the war?”2492

The point of warning the Japanese was to encourage an early surrender in the hope of avoiding a bloody invasion; the trouble with waiting until the Soviet Union entered the war was that it left Truman where he had dangled uncomfortably for months: over Stalin’s barrel, dependent on the USSR for military intervention in Manchuria to tie up the Japanese armies there. Hull’s delaying tactic might improve the first prospect; but it might also secure the second.

Another message arrived in Potsdam that evening, however, that changed the terms of the equation, a message for Stimson from George Harrison in Washington announcing the success of the Trinity shot:

Operated on this morning. Diagnosis not yet complete but results seem satisfactory and already exceed expectations. Local press release necessary as interest extends great distance.2493 Dr. Groves pleased. He returns tomorrow. I will keep you posted.

“Well,” Stimson remarked to Harvey Bundy with relief, “I have been responsible for spending two billions of dollars on this atomic venture. Now that it is successful I shall not be sent to prison in Fort Leavenworth.”2494 Happily the Secretary of War carried the cable to Truman and Byrnes, just returned to Potsdam from Berlin.

In Stimson’s welcome news Byrnes saw a more general reprieve. It informed his overnight response to Hull. “The following day” Hull says, “I received a message from Secretary Byrnes agreeing that the statement [warning the Japanese] should be delayed and that, when it was issued, it should not contain this commitment with regard to the Emperor.”2495 Byrnes had good reason to delay a warning now: to await the readying of the first combat atomic bombs. Those weapons would answer Hull’s first objection; if the Japanese ignored a warning, then the United States could deliver a brutally retributive response. With such weapons in the U.S. arsenal unconditional surrender need not be compromised. And America no longer required the Soviet Union’s aid in the Pacific; the problem now would be not dealing the Soviets in but stalling to keep them out. “Neither the President nor I,” Byrnes affirms, “were anxious to have them enter the war after we had learned of this successful test.”2496

Byrnes and others within the American delegation came to realize that preserving the Emperor might be sensible policy if Hirohito alone could persuade the far-flung Japanese armies, undefeated and with a year’s supply of ammunition on hand, to lay down their arms.2497 The new Secretary of State, who was drafting a suitable declaration, sought a formula that would not arouse the American people but might reassure the Japanese. The Joint Chiefs produced its first version: “Subject to suitable guarantees against further acts of aggression, the Japanese people will be free to choose their own form of government.”2498 The Japanese polity resided in the Imperial House, not in the people, but provision for popular government was as conditional an unconditional surrender as the enemy would be allowed.

George Harrison cabled Stimson on July 21 that “all your local military advisors engaged in preparation definitely favor your pet city”: Groves still coveted Kyoto.2499 Stimson quickly returned that he was “aware of no factors to change my decision. On the contrary new factors here tend to confirm it.”2500

Harrison also asked Stimson to alert him by July 25 “if [there is] any change in plans” because “[the] patient [is] progressing rapidly.”2501 At the same time Groves requested permission from George Marshall to brief Douglas MacArthur, who had not yet been told about the new weapon, in view of “the imminence of the use of the atomic fission bomb in operations against Japan, 5 to 10 August.”2502, 2503 The 509th had begun flying Pumpkin missions over Japan the previous day for combat experience and to accustom the enemy to small, unescorted flights of B-29’s at high altitude.

Groves’ eyewitness narrative of the Trinity test had arrived that Saturday just before noon. Stimson sought out Truman and Byrnes and had the satisfaction of riveting them to their chairs by reading it aloud. Groves estimated “the energy generated to be in excess of the equivalent of 15,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT” and allowed his deputy, Thomas F. Farrell, to call the visual effects “unprecedented, magnificent, beautiful, stupendous and terrifying.” Kenneth Bainbridge’s “foul and awesome display” became at Farrell’s hand “that beauty the great poets dream about but describe most poorly and inadequately,” which Farrell presumably meant for a superlative. “As to the present war,” Farrell opined, “there was a feeling that no matter what else might happen, we now had the means to insure its speedy conclusion and save thousands of American lives.” Stimson saw that Truman was “tremendously pepped up” by the report. “[He] said it gave him an entirely new feeling of confidence.”2504

The President met the next day to discuss Groves’ results with Byrnes, Stimson and the Joint Chiefs, including Marshall and Hap Arnold. Arnold had long maintained that conventional strategic bombing by itself could compel the Japanese to surrender. In late June, when invasion was being decided, he had rushed LeMay to Washington to work the numbers. LeMay figured he could complete the destruction of the Japanese war machine by October 1.2505 “In order to do this,” writes Arnold, “he had to take care of some 30 to 60 large and small cities.”2506 Between May and August LeMay took care of fifty-eight.2507 But Marshall disagreed with the Air Force assessment. The situation in the Pacific, he had told Truman in June, was “practically identical” to the situation in Europe after Normandy. “Airpower alone was not sufficient to put the Japanese out of the war.2508 It was unable alone to put the Germans out.” He explained his reasoning at Potsdam to an interviewer after the war:

We regarded the matter of dropping the [atomic] bomb as exceedingly important.2509 We had just gone through a bitter experience at Okinawa [the last major island campaign, when the Americans lost more than 12,500 men killed and missing and the Japanese more than 100,000 killed in eighty-two days of fighting]. This had been preceded by a number of similar experiences in other Pacific islands, north of Australia. The Japanese had demonstrated in each case they would not surrender and they would fight to the death. . . . It was expected that resistance in Japan, with their home ties, would be even more severe. We had had the one hundred thousand people killed in Tokyo in one night of [conventional] bombs, and it had had seemingly no effect whatsoever. It destroyed the Japanese cities, yes, but their morale was not affected as far as we could tell, not at all. So it seemed quite necessary, if we could, to shock them into action. . . . We had to end the war; we had to save American lives.

Before Groves’ report arrived, Dwight Eisenhower, a hard and pragmatic commander, had angered Stimson with a significantly different assessment. “We’d had a nice evening together at headquarters in Germany,” the Supreme Allied Commander remembers, “nice dinner, everything was fine. Then Stimson got this cable saying the bomb had been perfected and was ready to be dropped.”2510 The cable was the second Harrison had sent, the day after the Trinity test when Groves arrived back in Washington:

Doctor has just returned most enthusiastic and confident that the little boy is as husky as his big brother. The light in his eyes discernible from here to Highhold and I could have heard his screams from here to my farm.2511

Highhold was Stimson’s Long Island estate, 250 miles from Washington—the Trinity flash had been visible even farther from Zero than that. Harrison’s farm was 50 miles outside the capital. Eisenhower found the allegorical code less than amusing and the subject baleful:

The cable was in code, you know the way they do it. “The lamb is born” or some damn thing like that. So then he told me they were going to drop it on the Japanese. Well, I listened, and I didn’t volunteer anything because, after all, my war was over in Europe and it wasn’t up to me. But I was getting more and more depressed just thinking about it. Then he asked for my opinion, so I told him I was against it on two counts. First, the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing. Second, I hated to see our country be the first to use such a weapon. Well . . . the old gentleman got furious. And I can see how he would. After all, it had been his responsibility to push for all the huge expenditure to develop the bomb, which of course he had a right to do, and was right to do. Still, it was an awful problem.2512

Eisenhower also spoke to Truman, but the President concurred in Marshall’s judgment, having already formed his own. “Believe Japs will fold up before Russia comes in,” he confided to his diary almost as soon as he heard of the Trinity success. “I am sure they will when Manhattan appears over their homeland.”2513

When to issue the Potsdam Declaration now became essentially a question of when the first atomic bombs would be ready to be dropped. Stimson queried Harrison, who responded on July 23:

Operation may be possible any time from August 1 depending on state of preparation of patient and condition of atmosphere. From point of view of patient only, some chance August 1 to 3, good chance August 4 to 5 and barring unexpected relapse almost certain before August 10.2514

Stimson had also asked for a target list, “always excluding the particular place against which I have decided. My decision has been confirmed by highest authority.”2515 Harrison complied: “Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata in order of choice here.”2516

Which meant that Nagasaki had not yet, as of the last full week in July, been added to the list. Within days it would be. Official Air Force historians speculate that LeMay’s staff proposed it.2517 The requirement for visual bombing was probably the reason. Hiroshima was 440 miles southwest of Niigata. Nagasaki, over the mountains from Kokura on Kyushu, was a further 220 miles southwest of Hiroshima. If one city was socked in, another might be clear. Nagasaki was certainly also added because it was one of the few major cities left in Japan that had not yet been burned out.

A revealing third cable completed the day’s communications from Harrison (the metallurgists at Los Alamos had finished the Pu core for Fat Man that day). It concerned possible future deliveries of atomic bombs and hinted at a forthcoming change in design, probably to the so-called “mixed” implosion bomb with a core of U235 and plutonium alloyed together. Such a core could draw on the resources of both Oak Ridge and Hanford:

First one of tested type [i.e., Fat Man] should be ready at Pacific base about 6 August. Second one ready about 24 August. Additional ones ready at accelerating rate from possibly three in September to we hope seven or more in December. The increased rate above three per month entails changes in design which Groves believes thoroughly sound.2518

Stimson reported Harrison’s several estimates to Truman on Tuesday morning, July 24. The President was pleased and said he would use them to time the release of the Potsdam Declaration. The Secretary took advantage of the moment to appeal to Truman to consider assuring the Japanese privately that they could keep their Emperor if they persisted in making that concession a condition of surrender. Deliberately noncommittal, the President said he had the point in mind and would take care of it.

Stimson left and Byrnes joined Truman for lunch. They discussed how to tell Stalin as little as possible about the atomic bomb. Truman wanted protective cover when Stalin learned that his wartime allies had developed an epochal new weapon behind his back but wanted to give as little as possible away. Byrnes also devised a more immediate reason for circumspection, he told the historian Herbert Feis in 1958:

As a result of his experience with the Russians during the first week of the Conference he had come to the conclusion that it would be regrettable if the Soviet Union entered the [Pacific] war, and . . . he was afraid that if Stalin were made fully aware of the power of the new weapon, he might order the Soviet Army to plunge forward at once.2519

But in fact Stalin already knew about the Trinity test.2520 His agents in the United States had reported it to him. It appears he was not immediately impressed. There is gallows humor in Truman’s elaborately offhand approach to the Soviet Premier at the end of that day’s plenary session at the Cecilienhof Palace, stripped and shabby, where pale German mosquitoes homing through unscreened windows dined on the sanguinary conquerors. Truman left behind his translator, rounded the baize-covered conference table and sidled up to his Soviet counterpart, both men dissimulating. “I casually mentioned to Stalin that we had a new weapon of unusual destructive force. The Russian Premier showed no special interest. All he said was that he was glad to hear it and hoped we would make ‘good use of it against the Japanese.’ ”2521 “That,” concludes Robert Oppenheimer dryly, knowing how much at that moment the world lost, “was carrying casualness rather far.”2522

If Stalin was not yet impressed with the potential of the bomb, Truman in his private diary was waxing apocalyptic, biblical visions mingling in his autodidact’s mind with doubt that the atom could be decomposed and denial that the new weapon would be used to slaughter civilians:

We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world.2523 It may be the fire destruction prophesied in the Euphrates Valley Era, after Noah and his fabulous Ark.

Anyway we “think” we have found a way to cause a disintegration of the atom. An experiment in the New Mexican desert was startling—to put it mildly. . . .

This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop this terrible bomb on the old Capital or the new.

He & I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I’m sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance. It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful.

The Tuesday Truman mentioned the new weapon to Stalin the Combined Chiefs met with their Soviet counterparts; Red Army chief of staff General Alexei E. Antonov announced that Soviet troops were assembling on the Manchurian border and would be ready to attack in the second half of August. Stalin had said August 15 before. Byrnes was anxious that the Soviets might prove uncharacteristically punctual.

That afternoon in Washington Groves drafted the historic directive releasing the atomic bomb to use.2524 It passed up through Harrison for transmission by radio EYES ONLY to Marshall “in order that your approval and the Secretary of War’s approval might be obtained as soon as possible.”2525 (A small map of Japan cut from a large National Geographic Society map and a one-page description of the chosen targets, which now included Nagasaki, followed by courier.) Marshall and Stimson approved the directive at Potsdam and presumably showed it to Truman, though it does not record his formal authorization; it went out the next morning to the new commander of the Strategic Air Force in the Pacific:

To General Carl Spaatz, CG, USASTAF:

1. The 509 Composite Group, 20th Air Force will deliver its first special bomb as soon as weather will permit visual bombing after about 3 August 1945 on one of the targets: Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata and Nagasaki. . . .

2. Additional bombs will be delivered on the above targets as soon as made ready by the project staff. . . .

3. Dissemination of any and all information concerning the use of the weapon against Japan is reserved to the Secretary of War and the President of the United States. . . .

4. The foregoing directive is issued to you by direction and with the approval of the Secretary of War and of the Chief of Staff, USA.

As Groves drafted the directive the metallurgists at Los Alamos finished casting the rings of U235 that fitted together to form the gun bomb’s target assembly, the last components needed to complete Little Boy.

Strategy and delivery intersected on July 26 and synchronized. The Indianapolis arrived at Tinian. Three Air Transport Command C-54 cargo planes departed Kirtland Air Force Base with the three separate pieces of the Little Boy target assembly; two more ATC C-54’s departed with Fat Man’s initiator and plutonium core.2526 Meanwhile Truman’s staff released the Potsdam Declaration to the press at 7 P.M.2527 for dispatch from Occupied Germany at 9:20. It offered on behalf of the President of the United States, the President of Nationalist China and the Prime Minister of Great Britain to give Japan “an opportunity to end this war”:

Following are our terms. We will not deviate from them. There are no alternatives. We shall brook no delay.

There must be eliminated for all time the authority and influence of those who have deceived and misled the people of Japan into embarking on world conquest . . . .

Until such a new order is established . . . points in Japanese territory . . . shall be occupied.

 . . . Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine.

The Japanese military forces, after being completely disarmed, shall be permitted to return to their homes with the opportunity to lead peaceful and productive lives.

We do not intend that the Japanese shall be enslaved as a race or destroyed as a nation, but stern justice shall be meted out to all war criminals. . . . Freedom of speech, of religion, and of thought, as well as respect for the fundamental human rights shall be established.

Japan shall be permitted to maintain such industries as will sustain her economy. . . .

The occupying forces of the Allies shall be withdrawn from Japan as soon as these objectives have been accomplished and there has been established in accordance with the freely expressed will of the Japanese people a peacefully inclined and responsible government.

We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of all Japanese armed forces. . . . The alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.

“We faced a terrible decision,” Byrnes wrote in 1947. “We could not rely on Japan’s inquiries to the Soviet Union about a negotiated peace as proof that Japan would surrender unconditionally without the use of the bomb. In fact, Stalin stated the last message to him had said that Japan would ‘fight to the death rather than accept unconditional surrender.’ Under the circumstances, agreement to negotiate could only arouse false hopes. Instead, we relied upon the Potsdam Declaration.”2528

The text of that somber document went out by radio to the Japanese from San Francisco; Japanese monitors picked it up at 0700 hours Tokyo time July 27.2529 The Japanese leaders debated its mysteries all day. A quick Foreign Office analysis noted for the ministers that the Soviet Union had preserved its neutrality by not sponsoring the declaration, that it specified what the Allies meant by unconditional surrender and that the term itself had been applied specifically only to the nation’s armed forces. Foreign Minister Togo disliked the demand for occupation and the stripping away of Japan’s foreign possessions; he recommended waiting for a Soviet response to Ambassador Sato’s representations before responding.

The Prime Minister, Baron Kantaro Suzuki, came during the day to the same position. The military leaders disagreed. They recommended immediate rejection. Anything less, they argued, might impair morale.

The next day Japanese newspapers published a censored version of the Potsdam text, leaving out in particular the provision allowing disarmed military forces to return peacefully to their homes and the assurance that the Japanese would not be enslaved or destroyed. In the afternoon Suzuki held a press conference. “I believe the Joint Proclamation by the three countries,” he told reporters, “is nothing but a rehash of the Cairo Declaration. As for the Government, it does not find any important value in it, and there is no other recourse but to ignore it entirely and resolutely fight for the successful conclusion of the war.”2530 In Japanese Suzuki said there was no other recourse but to mokusatsu the declaration, which could also mean “treat it with silent contempt.” Historians have debated for years which meaning Suzuki had in mind, but there can hardly be any doubt about the rest of his statement: Japan intended to fight on.

“In the face of this rejection,” Stimson explained in Harper’s in 1947, “we could only proceed to demonstrate that the ultimatum had meant exactly what it said when it stated that if the Japanese continued the war, ‘the full application of our military power, backed by our resolve, will mean the inevitable and complete destruction of the Japanese armed forces and just as inevitably the utter devastation of the Japanese homeland.’ For such a purpose the atomic bomb was an eminently suitable weapon.”2531

The night of Suzuki’s press conference the five C-54’s from Albuquerque arrived at Tinian, six thousand miles nearer Japan, while three B-29’s departed Kirtland each carrying a Fat Man high-explosive preassembly.2532

The U.S. Senate in the meantime ratified the United Nations Charter.

The Indianapolis had sailed on to Guam after unloading the Little Boy gun and bullet at Tinian on July 26; from Guam it continued unescorted toward Leyte in the Philippines, where two weeks of training would ready the crew, 1,196 men, to join Task Force 95 at Okinawa preparing for the November 1 Kyushu invasion.2533 With the destruction of the Japanese surface fleet and air force, unescorted sailing had become commonplace on courses through rear areas, but the Indianapolis, an older vessel, lacked sonar gear for submarine detection and was top-heavy. Japanese submarine 1–58 discovered the heavy cruiser in the Philippine Sea a little before midnight on Sunday, July 29, and mistook it for a battleship. Easily avoiding detection while submerging to periscope depth, 1–58 fired a fanwise salvo of six torpedoes from 1,500 yards. Lieutenant Commander Mochitsura Hashimoto, 1–58’s commanding officer, remembers the result:

I took a quick look through the periscope, but there was nothing else in sight. Bringing the boat on to a course parallel with the enemy, we waited anxiously. Every minute seemed an age. Then on the starboard side of the enemy by the forward turret, and then by the after turret there rose columns of water, to be followed immediately by flashes of bright red flame. Then another column of water rose from alongside Number 1 turret and seemed to envelop the whole ship—“A hit, a hit!” I shouted as each torpedo struck home, and the crew danced round with joy. . . . Soon came the sound of a heavy explosion, far greater than that of the actual hits. Three more heavy explosions followed in quick succession, then six more.2534

The torpedoes and following explosions of ammunition and aviation fuel ripped away the cruiser’s bow and destroyed its power center. Without power the radio officer was unable to send a distress signal—he went through the motions anyway—or the bridge to communicate with the engine room. The engines pushed the ship forward unchecked, scooping up water through the holes in the hull and leaving behind the sailors thrown overboard who had been sleeping on deck in the tropical heat. The order to abandon ship, when it came, had to be passed by word of mouth.

With the ship listing to 45 degrees frightened and injured men struggled to follow disaster drill. Fires lit the darkness and smoke sickened. The ship’s medical officer found some thirty seriously burned men in the port hangar where the aviation fuel had exploded; at best they got morphine for their screams and rough kapok lifejackets strapped on over their burns. They went overboard with the others into salt water scummed with nauseating fuel oil. It was possible to walk down the hull to the keel and jump into the water but the spinning number three screw with its lethal blades chopped to death the unwary.

Some 850 men escaped. The stern rose up a hundred feet straight into the air and the ship plunged. The survivors heard screams from within the disappearing hull. Then they were left to the night and the darkness in twelve-foot swells.

Most had kapok lifejackets. Few had found their way to life rafts. They floated instead in clusters, linked together, stronger men swimming the circumferences to catch sleepers before they drifted away; one group numbered between three and four hundred souls. They pushed the wounded to the center where the water was calmer and prayed the distress call had gone out.

The captain had found two empty life rafts and later that night encountered one more occupied. He ordered the rafts lashed together. They sheltered ten men and he thought them the only survivors. Through the night a current carried the swimmers southwest while wind blew the rafts northeast; by the light of morning rafts and swimmers had separated beyond discovery.

More than fifty injured swimmers died during the night. Their comrades freed them from their jackets in the morning and let them go. The wind abated and the sun glared from the oil slick, blinding them with painful photophobia. And then the sharks came. A seaman swimming for a floating crate of potatoes thrashed in the water and was gone. Elemental terror: the men pressed together in their groups, some clusters deciding to beat the water, some to hang immotile as flotsam. A shark snapped away both a sailor’s legs and his unbalanced torso, suspended in its lifejacket, flipped upside down. One survivor remembered counting twenty-five deadly attacks; the ship’s doctor in his larger group counted eighty-eight.

They won no rescue. They passed through Monday and Monday night and Tuesday and Tuesday night without water, sinking lower and lower in the sea as the kapok in their lifejackets waterlogged. Eventually the thirstcrazed drank seawater. “Those who drank became maniacal and thrashed violently,” the doctor testifies, “until the victims became comatose and drowned.”2535 The living were blinded by the sun; their lifejackets abraded their ulcerating skin; they burned with fever; they hallucinated.

Wednesday and Wednesday night. The sharks circled and darted in to foray after flesh.2536 Men in the grip of group delusions followed one swimmer to an island he thought he saw, another to the ghost of the ship, another down into the ocean depths where fountains of fresh water seemed to promise to slake their thirst; all were lost. Fights broke out and men slashed each other with knives. Saturated lifejackets with waterlogged knots dragged other victims to their deaths. “We became a mass of delirious, screaming men,” says the doctor grimly.

Thursday morning, August 2, a Navy plane spotted the survivors. Because of negligence at Leyte the Indianapolis had not yet even been missed. A major rescue effort began, ships steaming to the area, PBY’s and PBM’s dropping food and water and survival gear. The rescuers found 318 naked and emaciated men. The fresh water they drank, one of them remembers, tasted “so sweet [it was] the sweetest thing in your life.”2537 Through the 84-hour ordeal more than 500 men had died, their bodies feeding sharks or lost to the depths of the sea.

After making good his escape, submarine commander Hashimoto reminisces, “at length, on the 30th, we celebrated our haul of the previous day with our favorite rice with beans, boiled eels, and corned beef (all of it tinned).”2538

The day of the I-58’s feast of canned goods Carl Spaatz telexed Washington with news:


It was too late to reconsider targets, prisoners of war or not. Washington telexed back the next day:


The die was cast.

Once Trinity proved that the atomic bomb worked, men discovered reasons to use it. The most compelling reason Stimson stated in his Harper’s apologia in 1947:

My chief purpose was to end the war in victory with the least possible cost in the lives of the men in the armies which I had helped to raise. In the light of the alternatives which, on a fair estimate, were open to us I believe that no man, in our position and subject to our responsibilities, holding in his hands a weapon of such possibilities for accomplishing this purpose and saving those lives, could have failed to use it and afterwards looked his countrymen in the face.2540

The Scientific Panel of the Interim Committee—Lawrence, Compton, Fermi, Oppenheimer—had been asked to conjure a demonstration of sufficient credibility to end the war. Meeting at Los Alamos on the weekend of June 16–17, debating long into the night, it found in the negative. Even Fermi’s ingenuity was not sufficient to the task of devising a demonstration persuasive enough to decide the outcome of a long and bitter conflict. Recognizing “our obligation to our nation to use the weapons to help save American lives in the Japanese war,” the panel first surveyed the opinions of scientific colleagues and then stated its own:2541

Those who advocate a purely technical demonstration would wish to outlaw the use of atomic weapons, and have feared that if we use the weapons now our position in future negotiations will be prejudiced. Others emphasize the opportunity of saving American lives by immediate military use, and believe that such use will improve the international prospects, in that they are more concerned with the prevention of war than with the elimination of this specific weapon. We find ourselves closer to these latter views; we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.

The bomb was to prove to the Japanese that the Potsdam Declaration meant business. It was to shock them to surrender. It was to put the Russians on notice and serve, in Stimson’s words, as a “badly needed equalizer.”2542 It was to let the world know what was coming: Leo Szilard had dallied with that rationale in 1944 before concluding in 1945 on moral grounds that the bomb should not be used and on political grounds that it should be kept secret. Teller revived a variant rationale in early July 1945, in replying to Szilard about a petition Szilard was then circulating among Manhattan Project scientists protesting the bomb’s impending use:

First of all let me say that I have no hope of clearing my conscience.2543 The things we are working on are so terrible that no amount of protesting or fiddling with politics will save our souls. . . .

But I am not really convinced of your objections. I do not feel that there is any chance to outlaw any one weapon. If we have a slim chance of survival, it lies in the possibility to get rid of wars. The more decisive the weapon is the more surely it will be used in any real conflicts and no agreements will help.

Our only hope is in getting the facts of our results before the people. This might help to convince everybody that the next war would be fatal. For this purpose actual combat-use might even be the best thing.

The bomb was also to be used to pay for itself, to justify to Congress the investment of $2 billion, to keep Groves and Stimson out of Leavenworth prison.

“To avert a vast, indefinite butchery,” Winston Churchill summarizes in his history of the Second World War, “to bring the war to an end, to give peace to the world, to lay healing hands upon its tortured peoples by a manifestation of overwhelming power at the cost of a few explosions, seemed, after all our toils and perils, a miracle of deliverance.”2544

The few explosions did not seem a miracle of deliverance to the civilians of the enemy cities upon whom the bombs would be dropped. In their behalf—surely they have claim—something more might be said about reasons. The bombs were authorized not because the Japanese refused to surrender but because they refused to surrender unconditionally. The debacle of conditional peace following the First World War led to the demand for unconditional surrender in the Second, the earlier conflict casting its dark shadow down the years. “It was the insistence on unconditional surrender that was the root of all evil,” writes the Oxford moralist G. E. M. Anscombe in a 1957 pamphlet opposing the awarding of an honorary degree to Harry Truman.2545 “The connection between such a demand and the need to use the most ferocious methods of warfare will be obvious. And in itself the proposal of an unlimited objective in war is stupid and barbarous.”

As before in the Great War for every belligerent, that was what the Second World War had become: stupid and barbarous. “For men to choose to kill the innocent as a means to their ends,” Anscombe adds bluntly, “is always murder, and murder is one of the worst of human actions. . . . In the bombing of [Japanese] cities it was certainly decided to kill the innocent as a means to an end.” In the decision of the Japanese militarists to arm the Japanese people with bamboo spears and set them against a major invasion force to fight to the death to preserve the homeland it was certainly decided to kill the innocent as a means to an end as well.2546

The barbarism was not confined to the combatants or the general staffs. It came to permeate civilian life in every country: in Germany and Japan, in Britain, in Russia, certainly in the United States. It was perhaps the ultimate reason Jimmy Byrnes, the politician’s politician, and Harry Truman, the man of the people, felt free to use and compelled to use a new weapon of mass destruction on civilians in undefended cities. “It was the psychology of the American people,” I. I. Rabi eventually decided. “I’m not justifying it on military grounds but on the existence of this mood of the military with the backing of the American people.” The mood, suggests the historian Herbert Feis, encompassed “impatience to end the strain of war blended with a zest for victory. They longed to be done with smashing, burning, killing, dying—and were angry at the defiant, crazed, useless prolongation of the ordeal.”2547

In 1945 Life magazine was the preeminent general-circulation magazine in the United States. It served millions of American families for news and entertainment much as television a decade later began to do. Children read it avidly and reported on its contents in school. In the last issue of Life before the United States used the atomic bomb a one-page picture story appeared, titled, in 48-point capitals, A JAP BURNS.2548 Its brief text, for those who could tear their eyes away from the six postcard-sized black-and-white photographs showing a man being burned alive long enough to read the words, savored horror while complaining of ugly necessity:

When the 7th Australian Division landed near Balikpapan on the island of Borneo last month they found a town strongly defended by Japanese. As usual, the enemy fought from caves, from pillboxes, from every available hiding place. And, as usual, there was only one way to advance against them: burn them out. Men of the 7th, who had fought the Japs before, quickly applied their flamethrowers, soon convinced some Japs that it was time to quit. Others, like the one shown here, refused. So they had to be burned out.

Although men have fought one another with fire from time immemorial, the flamethrower is easily the most cruel, the most terrifying weapon ever developed. If it does not suffocate the enemy in his hiding place, its quickly licking tongues of flame sear his body to a black crisp. But so long as the Jap refuses to come out of his holes and keeps killing, this is the only way.

In a single tabloid page Life had assembled a brutal allegory of the later course of the Pacific war.

Little Boy was ready on July 31. It lacked only its four sections of cordite charge, a precaution prepared when the weapon was designed at Los Alamos but decided upon at Tinian, for safety on takeoff and in the event visual bombing proved impossible, in which case Tibbets had orders to bring the bomb back.2549, 2550, 2551 Three of Tibbets’ full complement of fifteen B-29’s flew a last test that last day of July with a dummy Little Boy. They took off from Tinian, rendezvoused over Iwo Jima, returned to Tinian, dropped unit L6 into the sea and practiced their daredevil diving turn. “With the completion of this test,” writes Norman Ramsey, “all tests preliminary to combat delivery of a Little Boy with active material were completed.”2552 That unit would be number Lll, and the sturdy tungsten-steel target holder screwed to its muzzle, the best in stock, was the first one Los Alamos had received; it had served four times for firing tests at Anchor Ranch late in 1944 before being packed in cosmoline for the voyage out to Tinian.

Since everything was ready, Farrell telexed Groves to report that the mission could be flown on August 1; he would assume that the Spaatz directive of July 25 authorized such initiative unless Groves replied to the contrary.2553 The commanding general of the Manhattan Project let his deputy’s interpretation stand. Little Boy would have flown on August 1 if a typhoon had not approached Japan that day to intervene.

So the mission waited on the weather. On August 2, Thursday, the three B-29’s that carried Fat Man preassemblies arrived from New Mexico.2554 The assembly team of Los Alamos scientists and military ordnance technicians went to work immediately to prepare one Fat Man for a drop test and a second with higher-quality HE castings for combat.2555 The third preassembly would be held in reserve for the plutonium core scheduled to be shipped from Los Alamos in mid-August. “By August 3,” recalls Paul Tibbets, “we were watching the weather and comparing it to the [long-range] forecast. The actual and forecast weather were almost identical, so we got busy.”2556

Among other necessities, getting busy involved briefing the crews of the seven 509th B-29’s that would fly the first mission for weather reporting, observation and bombing. Tibbets scheduled the briefing for 1500 hours on August 4. The crews arrived between 1400 and 1500 to find the briefing hut completely surrounded by MP’s armed with carbines. Tibbets walked in promptly at 1500; he had just returned from checking out the aircraft he intended to use to deliver Little Boy, usually piloted by Robert Lewis: B-29 number 82, as yet unnamed. Deke Parsons joined him on the briefing platform. A radio operator, Sergeant Abe Spitzer, kept an illegal diary of his experiences at Tinian that describes the briefing.2557

The moment had arrived, Tibbets told the assembled crews. The weapon they were about to deliver had recently been tested successfully in the United States; now they were going to drop it on the enemy.

Two intelligence officers undraped the blackboards behind the 509th commander to reveal aerial photographs of the targets: Hiroshima, Kokura, Nagasaki. (Niigata was excluded, apparently because of weather.) Tibbets named them and assigned three crews—“finger crews”—to fly ahead the day of the drop to assess their cloud cover. Two more aircraft would accompany him to photograph and observe; the seventh would wait beside a loading pit on Iwo Jima as a spare in case Tibbets’ plane malfunctioned.

The 509th commander introduced Parsons, who wasted no words. He told the crews the bomb they were going to drop was something new in the history of warfare, the most destructive weapon ever made: it would probably almost totally destroy an area three miles across.

They were stunned. “It is like some weird dream,” Spitzer mused, “conceived by one with too vivid an imagination.”

Parsons prepared to show a motion picture of the Trinity test. The projector refused to start. Then it started abruptly and began chewing up leader. Parsons told the projectionist to shut the machine off and improvised. He described the shot in the Jornada del Muerto: how far away the light had been seen, how far away the explosion had been heard, the effects of the blast wave, the formation of the mushroom cloud. He did not identify the source of the weapon’s energy, but with details—a man knocked down at 10,000 yards, men 10 and 20 miles away temporarily blinded—he won their rapt attention.

Tibbets took over again. They were now the hottest crews in the Air Force, he warned them. He forbade them to write letters home or to discuss the mission even among themselves. He briefed them on the flight. It would probably go, he said, early on the morning of August 6. An air-sea rescue officer described rescue operations. Tibbets closed with a challenge, a final word Spitzer paraphrases in his diary:

The colonel began by saying that whatever any of us, including himself, had done before was small potatoes compared to what we were going to do now. Then he said the usual things, but he said them well, as if he meant them, about how proud he was to have been associated with us, about how high our morale had been, and how difficult it was not knowing what we were doing, thinking maybe we were wasting our time and that the “gimmick” was just somebody’s wild dream. He was personally honored and he was sure all of us were, to have been chosen to take part in this raid, which, he said—and all the other big-wigs nodded when he said it—would shorten the war by at least six months. And you got the feeling that he really thought this bomb would end the war, period.

The following morning, Sunday, Guam reported that weather over the target cities should improve the next day. “At 1400 on August 5,” Norman Ramsey records, “General LeMay officially confirmed that the mission would take place on August 6.”2558

That afternoon the loading crew winched Little Boy onto its sturdy transport dolly, draped it with a tarpaulin to protect it from prying eyes—there were still Japanese soldiers hiding out on the island, hunted at night by security forces like raccoons—and wheeled it to one of the 13 by 16-foot loading pits Kirkpatrick had prepared. A battery of photographers followed along to record the proceedings. The dolly was wheeled over the nine-foot pit on tracks; the hydraulic lift came up to relieve it of its bomb and detachable cradle; the crew wheeled the dolly away, removed the tracks, rotated the bomb 90 degrees and lowered it into the pit.2559

The world’s first combat atomic bomb looked like “an elongated trash can with fins,” one of Tibbets’ crew members thought.2560 With its tapered tail assembly that culminated in a boxed frame of stabilizing baffle plates it was 10½ feet long and 29 inches in diameter. It weighed 9,700 pounds, an armored cylinder jacketed in blackened dull steel with a flat, rounded nose. A triple fusing system armed it. The main fusing component was a radar unit adapted from a tail-warning mechanism developed to alert combat pilots when enemy aircraft approached from behind. “This radar device,” notes the Los Alamos technical history, “would close a relay [i.e., a switch] at a predetermined altitude above the target.”2561 For reliability Little Boy and Fat Man each carried four such radar units, called Archies. Rather than an approaching enemy aircraft, the bomb Archies would bounce their signals off the approaching enemy ground. An agreed reading by any two of the units would send a firing signal into the next stage of the fusing system, the technical history explains:


This stage consisted of a bank of clock-operated switches, started by arming wires which were pulled out of the clocks when the bomb dropped from the plane’s bomb bay. These clock switches were not closed until 15 seconds after the bomb was released. Their purpose was to prevent detonation in case the A[rchie] units were fired by signals reflected from the plane. A second arming device was a [barometric] pressure switch, which did not close until subject to a pressure corresponding to 7000 feet altitude.

Once it passed through the clock and barometric arming devices the Little Boy firing signal went directly to the primers that lit the cordite charges to fire the gun. Externally the fusing system revealed itself in trailing whips of radar antennae, clock wires threaded into holes in the weapon’s upper waist and holes in its tapered tail assembly that admitted external air to guarantee accurate barometry.

Loading the bomb was delicate: the fit was tight. A ground crew towed the B-29 to a position beside the loading pit, running onto a turntable the main landing gear on the wing nearer the pit. Towing the aircraft around on the turntable through 180 degrees positioned it over the pit. The hydraulic lift raised Little Boy to a point directly below the open bomb doors. A plumb bob hung from the single bomb shackle for a point of reference and jacks built into the bomb cradle allowed the crew to line up the bomb eye.

“The operation can be accomplished in 20 to 25 minutes,” a Boeing engineer commented in an August report, “but is a rather ticklish procedure, as there is very little clearance with the catwalks and, once installed, nothing holds the bomb but the single shackle and adjustable sway braces bearing on it.”2562

Though he flew it as his own, Robert Lewis had never named B-29 number 82. The day of the loading Tibbets consulted the officers in Lewis’ crew—but not Lewis—and did so. The 509th commander chose not pinups or puns but his mother’s given names, Enola Gay, because she had assured him he would not be killed flying when he fought out with his father his decision to become a pilot. “Through the years,” Tibbets told an interviewer once, “whenever I got in a tight spot in a plane I always remembered her calm assurance. It helped. In getting ready for the big one I rarely thought of what might happen, but when I did, those words of Mom’s put an end to it.” He “wrote a note on a slip of paper,” located a sign painter among the service personnel—the man had to be dragged away from a softball game—and told him to “paint that on the strike ship, nice and big.”2563, 2564 Foot-high, squared brushstrokes went on at a 30-degree angle beneath the pilot’s window of the bullet-nosed plane, the middle name flushright below the first.

Lewis, a sturdy, combative two-hundred-pounder, had known for a day or two that Tibbets would pilot the mission, a disappointment, but still considered the special B-29 his own. When he dropped by late in the afternoon to inspect it and found ENOLA GAYpainted on its fuselage he was furious. “What the hell is that doing on my plane?” one of his crew mates remembers him yelling.2565 He found out that Tibbets had authorized the christening and marched off to confront him. The 509th commander told him coolly, rank having its privileges, that he didn’t think the junior officer would mind. Lewis minded, but he could do no more than stow away his resentment for the war stories he would tell.

“By dinnertime on the fifth,” Tibbets narrates, “all [preparations were] completed.2566 The atom bomb was ready, the planes were gassed and checked. Takeoff was set for [2:45] a.m. I tried to nap, but visitors kept me up. [Captain Theodore J.] Dutch [Van Kirk, the Enola Gay’s navigator,] swallowed two sleeping tablets, then sat up wide awake all night playing poker.” The weapon waiting in the bomb bay took its toll on nerves.

“Final briefing was at 0000 of August 6,” Ramsey notes—midnight.2567 Tibbets emphasized the power of the bomb, reminded the men to wear the polarized goggles they had been issued, cautioned them to obey orders and follow their protocols. A weather officer predicted moderate winds with clouds over the targets clearing at dawn. Tibbets called forward a Protestant chaplain who delivered a prayer composed for the occasion on the back of an envelope; it asked the Almighty Father “to be with those who brave the heights of Thy heaven and who carry the battle to our enemies.”2568

After the midnight briefing the crews ate an early breakfast of ham and eggs and Tibbets’ favorite pineapple fritters. Trucks delivered them to their hardstands. At the Enola Gay’s hardstand, writes Ramsey, “amid brilliant floodlights, pictures were taken and retaken by still and motion picture photographers (as though for a Hollywood premiere).”2569 A photograph shows ten of the twelve members of the strike plane’s crew posed in flight coveralls under the forward fuselage by the nose wheel: boyish Van Kirk in overseas cap with his coveralls unzipped down his chest to expose a white T-shirt; Major Thomas Ferebee, the bombardier, a handsome Errol Flynn copy with an Errol Flynn mustache, resting a friendly hand on Van Kirk’s shoulder; Tibbets standing at the center of it all easily smiling, belted and trim, his hands in his pockets; at Tibbets’ left Robert Lewis, the only crew member wearing a weapon; small, wiry Lieutenant Jacob Beser beside Lewis awkwardly smiling, a Jewish technician from Baltimore added for the flight, responsible for electronic countermeasures to screen the Archie units from Japanese radar. In front of the officers kneel the slimmer, mostly younger enlisted men (though the entire flight crew was young, Tibbets now all of thirty years old): radar operator Sergeant Joseph Stiborik; tail gunner Staff Sergeant Robert Caron, Brooklyn-born, wearing a Dodgers baseball cap; radio operator Private Richard R. Nelson; assistant engineer Sergeant Robert H. Shumard; flight engineer Staff Sergeant Wyatt Duzenbury, thirty-two, a former Michigan tree surgeon who thought the bomb looked like a tree trunk. An eleventh member of the crew, 2nd Lieutenant Morris Jeppson, an ordnance expert, would assist Deke Parsons in arming and monitoring Little Boy. Parsons, the twelfth man, resisted photographing but was flying the mission as weaponeer.

The three weather planes and the Iwo Jima standby had already left. Tibbets ordered Wyatt Duzenbury to start engines at 0227 hours. Pilot and copilot sat side by side just back of the point where the cylindrical fuselage began to curve inward to form the bullet-shaped nose; Ferebee, the bombardier, sat a step down ahead of them within the nose itself, an exposed position but a good view. Almost everything inside the aircraft was painted a dull lime green. “It was just another mission,” Tibbets says, “if you didn’t let imagination run away with your wits.”2570 As Dimples Eight Two, the Enola Gay’s unlikely designation that day, he reconstructs his dialogue with the Tinian control tower:

I forgot the atom bomb and concentrated on the cockpit check.

I called the tower. “Dimples Eight Two to North Tinian Tower. Taxi-out and take-off instructions.”

“Dimples Eight Two from North Tinian Tower. Take off to the east on Runway A for Able.”

At the end of the runway, another call to the tower and a quick response: “Dimples Eight Two cleared for take-off.”

Bob Lewis called off the time. Fifteen seconds to go. Ten seconds. Five seconds. Get ready.

At that moment the Enola Gay weighed 65 tons. It carried 7,000 gallons of fuel and a four-ton bomb. It was 15,000 pounds overweight. Confident the aircraft was maintained too well to falter, Tibbets decided to use as much of the two-mile runway as he needed to build RPM’s and manifold pressure before roll-up.

He eased the brakes at 0245, the four fuel-injected Wright Cyclone engines pounding. “The B-29 has lots of torque in take-off,” he notes. “It wants to swerve off the runway to the left. The average mass-production pilot offsets torque by braking his right wheels. It’s a rough ride, you lose ten miles an hour and you delay the take-off.” Nothing so crude for Tibbets. “Pilots of the 509th Group were taught to cancel torque by leading in with the left engines, advancing throttles ahead of the right engines. At eighty miles an hour, you get full rudder control, advance the right-hand engines to full power and, in a moment, you’re airborne.”2571 Takeoff needed longer than a moment for the Enola Gay’s overloaded flight. As the runway disappeared beneath the big bomber Lewis fought the urge to pull back the yoke. At the last possible takeoff point he thought he did. Not he but Tibbets did and abruptly they were flying, an old dream of men, climbing above a black sea.

Ten minutes later they crossed the northern tip of Saipan on a course northwest by north at 4,700 feet.2572 The air temperature was a balmy 72°. They were flying low not to burn fuel lifting fuel and for the comfort of the two weaponeers, Parsons and Jeppson, who had to enter the unpressurized, unheated bomb bay to finish assembling the bomb.

That work began at 0300. It was demanding in the cramped confines of the loaded bomb bay but not dangerous; there was only minimal risk of explosion. The green plugs that blocked the firing signal and prevented accidental detonation were plugged into the weapon; Parsons confirmed that fact first of all. Next he removed a rear plate; removed an armor plate beneath, exposing the cannon breech; inserted a wrench into the breech plug and rotated the wrench about sixteen times to unscrew the plug; removed it and placed it carefully on a rubber pad. He inserted the four sections of cordite one at a time, red ends to breech.2573 He replaced the breech plug and tightened it home, connected the firing line, reinstalled the two metal plates and with Jeppson’s help removed and secured the tools and the catwalk. Little Boy was complete but not yet armed. The charge loading took fifteen minutes. They spent another fifteen minutes checking monitoring circuitry at the panel installed at the weaponeer’s position in the forward section. Then, except for monitoring, their work was done until time to arm the bomb.

Robert Lewis kept a journal of the flight. William L. Lawrence, the New York Times science editor attached to the Manhattan Project, had traveled out to Tinian expecting to go along. When he learned to his bitter disappointment that his participation had been deleted he asked Lewis to take notes. The copilot imagined himself writing a letter to his mother and father but appears to have sensed that the world would be looking over his shoulder and styled his entries with regulation Air Force bonhomie. “At forty-five minutes out of our base,” he began self-consciously, “everyone is at work.2574 Colonel Tibbets has been hard at work with the usual tasks that belong to the pilot of a B-29. Captain Van Kirk, navigator, and Sergeant Stiborik, radio operator, are in continuous conversation, as they are shooting bearings on the northern Marianas and making radar wind runs.” No mention of Parsons or Jeppson, oddly enough, though Lewis could have seen the bomb hanging in its bay through the round port below the tunnel opening straight back from his copilot’s seat.

The automatic pilot, personified as George, was flying the plane, which Tibbets stationed below 5,000 feet. The commander realized he was tired, Lewis records: “The colonel, better known as ‘the Old Bull,’ shows signs of a tough day.2575 With all he’s had to do to get this mission off, he is deserving of a few winks, so I’ll have a bite to eat and look after ‘George.’ ”

Rather than sleep Tibbets crawled through the thirty-foot tunnel to chat with the waist crew, wondering if they knew what they were carrying. “A chemist’s nightmare,” the tail gunner, Robert Caron, guessed, then “a physicist’s nightmare.”2576 “Not exactly,” Tibbets hedged. Tibbets was leaving by the time Caron put two and two together:

[Tibbets] stayed . . . a little longer, and then started to crawl forward up the tunnel. I remembered something else, and just as the last of the Old Man was disappearing, I sort of tugged at his foot, which was still showing. He came sliding back in a hurry, thinking maybe something was wrong. “What’s the matter?”

I looked at him and said, “Colonel, are we splitting atoms today?”

This time he gave me a really funny look, and said, “That’s about it.”

Caron’s third try, which he styles “a lucky guess,” apparently decided Tibbets to complete the crew’s briefing; back in his seat he switched on the interphone, called “Attention!” and remembers saying something like “Well, boys, here’s the last piece of the puzzle.”2577 They carried an atomic bomb, he told them, the first to be dropped from an airplane. They were not physicists; they understood at least that the weapon was different from any other ever used in war.

Lewis took control from George to weave his way through a mass of towering cumuli, clouds black in the darkness that swept aside to reveal a sky shot with stars. “At 4:30,” he jotted, “we saw signs of a late moon in the east.2578 I think everyone will feel relieved when we have left our bomb with the Japs and get half way home. Or, better still, all the way home.” Ferebee in the nose was quiet; Lewis suspected he was thinking of home, “in the midwest part of old U.S.A.” The bombardier was in fact from Mocksville, North Carolina, close enough to the Midwest for a native of New York. Dawn lightening a little past 0500 cheered them; “it looks at this time,” Lewis wrote coming out of the clouds, “that we will have clear sailing for a long spell.”

At 0552 they approached Iwo Jima and Tibbets began climbing to 9,300 feet to rendezvous with the observation and photography planes. The Enola Gay circled left over Iwo, found its two escorts and moved on, its course continuing northwest by north toward the archipelago of green islands the men called the Empire.

“After leaving Iwo we began to pick up some low stratus,” Lewis resumes his narrative, “and before long we were flying on top of an undercast. At 07:10 the undercast began to break up a little bit. Outside of a high thin cirrus and the low stuff it’s a very beautiful day. We are now about two hours from Bombs Away.”2579 They flew into history through a middle world, suspended between sky and sea, drinking coffee and eating ham sandwiches, engines droning, the smell of hot electronics in the air.

At 0730 Parsons visited the bomb bay for the last time to arm Little Boy, exchanging its green plugs for red and activating its internal batteries. Tibbets was about to begin the 45-minute climb to altitude. Jeppson worked his console. Parsons told Tibbets that Little Boy was “final.” Lewis overheard:

The bomb was now independent of the plane. It was a peculiar sensation. I had a feeling the bomb had a life of its own now that had nothing to do with us. I wished it were over and we were at this same position on the way back to Tinian.2580

“Well, folks, it won’t be long now,” the copilot added as Tibbets increased power to climb.2581

The weather plane at Hiroshima reported in at 0815 (0715 Hiroshima time). It found two-tenths cloud cover lower and middle and two-tenths at 15,000 feet. The other two target weather reports followed. “Our primary is the best target,” Lewis wrote enthusiastically, “so, with everything going well so far, we will make a bomb run on Hiroshima.”2582 “It’s Hiroshima,” Tibbets announced to the crew.2583

They leveled at 31,000 feet at 0840. They had pressurized the aircraft and heated it against an outside temperature of –10°F. Ten minutes later they achieved landfall over Shikoku, the smaller home island east of Hiroshima, a city which looks southeastward from the coast of Honshu into the Inland Sea. “As we are approaching our target, Ferebee, Van Kirk and Stiborik are coming into their own, while the colonel and I are standing by and giving the boys what they need.”2584 Correcting course, Lewis means, aligning the plane. He got excited then or busy: “There will be a short intermission while we bomb our target.” But bombing the target was the main event.

The crew pulled on heavy flak suits, cumbersome protection the pilots disdained. No Japanese fighters came up to meet them, nor were they bothered by flak.

The two escort planes dropped back to give the Enola Gay room. Tibbets reminded his men to wear their protective goggles.

They carried no maps. They had studied aerial photographs and knew the target city well. It was distinctive in any case, sited on a delta divided by the channels of seven distributaries. “Twelve miles from the target,” Tibbets remembers, “Ferebee called, ‘I see it!’ He clutched in his bombsight and took control of the plane from me for a visual run.2585 Dutch [Van Kirk] kept giving me radar course corrections. He was working with the radar operator. . . . I couldn’t raise them on the interphone to tell them Ferebee had the plane.” The bombardier flew the plane through his bombsight, the knurled knobs he adjusted instructing the automatic pilot to make minor corrections in course. They crossed the Inland Sea on a heading only five degrees south of due west. Van Kirk noticed eight large ships south of them in Hiroshima harbor. The Enola Gay’s ground speed then was 285 knots, about 328 miles per hour.

Above a fork in the imageta River in central Hiroshima a T-shaped bridge spanned the river and connected to the island formed by the two distributaries. The Aioi Bridge, not a war plant surrounded by workers’ houses, was Ferebee’s chosen aiming point. Second Army headquarters was based nearby. Tibbets had called the bridge the most perfect AP he’d seen in the whole damn war:2586

Ferebee had the drift well killed but the rate was off a little.2587 He made two slight corrections. A loud “blip” on the radio notified the escort B-29’s that the bomb would drop in two minutes.2588 After that, Tom looked up from his bombsight and nodded to me; it was going to be okay.

He motioned to the radio operator to give the final warning. A continuous tone signal went out, telling [the escorts]: “In fifteen seconds she goes.”

The distant weather planes also heard the radio signal. So did the spare B-29 parked on Iwo Jima. It alerted Luis Alvarez in the observation plane to prepare to film the oscilloscopes he had installed there; the radiolinked parachute gauges he had designed to measure Little Boy’s explosive yield hung in the bomb bay waiting to drop with the bomb and float down toward the city.

Hiroshima unrolled east to west in the cross hairs of Thomas Ferebee’s Norden bombsight. The bomb-bay doors were open. Ferebee had flown sixty-three combat missions in Europe before returning to the United States to instruct and then to join the 509th. Before the war he had wanted to be a baseball player and had got as far as spring tryouts with a majorleague team. He was twenty-four years old.

“The radio tone ended,” Tibbets says tersely, “the bomb dropped, Ferebee unclutched his sight.” The arming wires pulled out to start Little Boy’s clocks. The first combat atomic bomb fell away from the plane, then nosed down. It was inscribed with autographs and messages, some of them obscene. “Greetings to the Emperor from the men of the Indianapolis,” one challenged.

Four tons lighter, the B-29 jumped. Tibbets dove away:

I threw off the automatic pilot and hauled Enola Gay into the turn.

I pulled antiglare goggles over my eyes. I couldn’t see through them; I was blind. I threw them to the floor.

A bright light filled the plane. The first shock wave hit us.

We were eleven and a half miles slant range from the atomic explosion, but the whole airplane cracked and crinkled from the blast. I yelled “Flak!” thinking a heavy gun battery had found us.

The tail gunner had seen the first wave coming, a visible shimmer in the atmosphere, but he didn’t know what it was until it hit. When the second wave came, he called out a warning.

We turned back to look at Hiroshima. The city was hidden by that awful cloud . . . boiling up, mushrooming, terrible and incredibly tall.

No one spoke for a moment; then everyone was talking. I remember Lewis pounding my shoulder, saying, “Look at that! Look at that! Look at that!” Tom Ferebee wondered about whether radioactivity would make us all sterile. Lewis said he could taste atomic fission. He said it tasted like lead.

“Fellows,” Tibbets announced on the interphone, “you have just dropped the first atomic bomb in history.”2589

Van Kirk remembers the two shock waves—one direct, one reflected from the ground—vividly:

[It was] very much as if you’ve ever sat on an ash can and had somebody hit it with a baseball bat. . . . The plane bounced, it jumped and there was a noise like a piece of sheet metal snapping. Those of us who had flown quite a bit over Europe thought that it was anti-aircraft fire that had exploded very close to the plane.2590

The apparent proximity of the explosion would be one of its trademarks, much as its heat had seemed intimate to Philip Morrison and his colleagues at Trinity.

Turning, diving, circling back to watch, the crew of the Enola Gay missed the early fireball; when they looked again Hiroshima smothered under a pall. Lewis in a postwar interview:

I don’t believe anyone ever expected to look at a sight quite like that. Where we had seen a clear city two minutes before, we could now no longer see the city. We could see smoke and fires creeping up the sides of the mountains.2591

Van Kirk:

If you want to describe it as something you are familiar with, a pot of boiling black oil. . . . I thought: Thank God the war is over and I don’t have to get shot at any more. I can go home.2592

It was a sentiment hundreds of thousands of American soldiers and sailors would soon express, and it was hard-earned.

Leaving the scene the tail gunner, Robert Caron, had a long view:

I kept shooting pictures and trying to get the mess down over the city. All the while I was describing this on the intercom. . . . The mushroom itself was a spectacular sight, a bubbling mass of purple-gray smoke and you could see it had a red core in it and everything was burning inside.2593 As we got farther away, we could see the base of the mushroom and below we could see what looked like a few-hundred-foot layer of debris and smoke and what have you.

I was trying to describe the mushroom, this turbulent mass. I saw fires springing up in different places, like flames shooting up on a bed of coals. I was asked to count them. I said, “Count them?” Hell, I gave up when there were about fifteen, they were coming too fast to count. I can still see it—that mushroom and that turbulent mass—it looked like lava or molasses covering the whole city, and it seemed to flow outward up into the foothills where the little valleys would come into the plain, with fires starting up all over, so pretty soon it was hard to see anything because of the smoke.

Jacob Beser, the electronic countermeasures officer, an engineering student at Johns Hopkins before he enlisted, found an image from the seashore for the turmoil he saw:

That city was burning for all she was worth. It looked like . . . well, did you ever go to the beach and stir up the sand in shallow water and see it all billow up? That’s what it looked like to me.2594

Little Boy exploded at 8:16:02 Hiroshima time, 43 seconds after it left the Enola Gay, 1,900 feet above the courtyard of Shima Hospital, 550 feet southeast of Thomas Ferebee’s aiming point, Aioi Bridge, with a yield equivalent to 12,500 tons of TNT.2595

“It was all impersonal,” Paul Tibbets would come to say.2596 It was not impersonal for Robert Lewis. “If I live a hundred years,” he wrote in his journal, “I’ll never quite get these few minutes out of my mind.”2597 Nor would the people of Hiroshima.2598

*   *   *

In my mind’s eye, like a waking dream, I could still see the tongues of fire at work on the bodies of men.

Masuji Ibuse, Black Rain

The settlement on the delta islands of the imageta River in southwestern Honshu was named Ashihara, “reed field,” or Gokaura, “five villages,” before the feudal lord Terumoto Mōri built a fortress there between 1589 and 1591 to secure an outlet for his family holdings on the Inland Sea. Mōri called his fortress Hiro-shima-jō, “broad-island castle,” and gradually the town of merchants and artisans that grew up around it acquired its name. It was an 800-foot rectangle of massive stone walls protected within a wide rectangular moat, one corner graced by a high white pagoda-like tower with five progressively inset roofs. The Mōri family soon lost its holdings to the stronger Fukushima family, which lost them in turn to the Asano family in 1619. The Asanos had the good sense to have allied themselves closely with the Tokugawa Shogunate and ruled Hiroshima fief within that alliance for the next two and a half centuries.2599 Across those centuries the town prospered. The Asanos saw to its progressive enlargement by filling in the estuarial shallows to connect its islands. Divided then into long, narrow districts by the imageta’s seven distributaries, Hiroshima assumed the form of an open, extended hand.

The restoration of the Meiji emperor in 1868 and the abolition of the feudal clan system transformed Hiroshima fief into Hiroshima Prefecture and the town, like the country, began vigorously to modernize. A physician was appointed its first mayor in 1889 when it officially became a city; the population that celebrated the change numbered 83,387. Five years of expensive landfill and construction culminated that year in the opening of Ujina harbor, a reclamation project that established Hiroshima as a major commercial port. Railroads came through at the turn of the century.

By then Hiroshima and its castle had found further service as an army base and the Imperial Army Fifth Division was quartered in barracks within and around the castle grounds. The Fifth Division was the first to be shipped to battle when Japan and China initiated hostilities in 1894; Ujina harbor served as a major point of embarkation and would continue in that role for the next fifty years. The Meiji emperor moved his headquarters to the castle in Hiroshima in September, the better to direct the war, and the Diet met in extraordinary session in a provisional Diet building there. Until the following April, when the limited mainland war ended with a Japanese victory that included the acquisition of Formosa and the southern part of Manchuria, Hiroshima was de facto the capital of Japan. Then the emperor returned to Tokyo and the city consolidated its gains.

It acquired further military and industrial investments in the first three decades of the twentieth century as Japan turned to increasing international adventure. By the Second World War, an American study noted in the autumn of 1945, “Hiroshima was a city of considerable military importance. It contained the 2nd Army headquarters, which commanded the defense of all of southern Japan. The city was a communication center, a storage point, and an assembly area for troops. To quote a Japanese report, ‘Probably more than a thousand times since the beginning of the war did the Hiroshima citizens see off with cries of “Banzai” the troops leaving from the harbor.’ ”2600 From Hiroshima in 1945 the Japanese Army general staff prepared to direct the defense of Kyushu against the impending American invasion.

Earlier in the war the city’s population had approached 400,000, but the threat of strategic bombing, so ominously delayed, had led the authorities to order a series of evacuations; on August 6 the resident population numbered some 280,000 to 290,000 civilians plus about 43,000 soldiers. Given that proportion of civilian to military—more than six to one—Hiroshima was not, as Truman had promised in his Potsdam diary, a “purely military” target. It was not without responsibility, however, in serving the ends of war.

“The hour was early, the morning still, warm, and beautiful,” a Hiroshima physician, Michihiko Hachiya, the director of the Hiroshima Communications Hospital, begins a diary of the events Little Boy entrained on August 6. “Shimmering leaves, reflecting sunlight from a cloudless sky, made a pleasant contrast with shadows in my garden.”2601 The temperature at eight o’clock was 80 degrees, the humidity 80 percent, the wind calm. The seven branches of the imageta flowed past crowds of citizens walking and bicycling to work. The streetcars that clanged outside Fukuya department store two blocks north of Aioi Bridge were packed. Thousands of soldiers, bare to the waist, exercised at morning calesthenics on the east and west parade grounds that flanked Hiroshima Castle a long block west of the T-shaped bridge. More than eight thousand schoolgirls, ordered to duty the day before, worked outdoors in the central city helping to raze houses to clear firebreaks against the possibility of an incendiary attack. An air raid alert at 7:09—the 509th weather plane—had been called off at 7:31 when the B-29 left the area. Three more B-sans approaching just before 8:15 sent hardly anyone to cover, though many raised their eyes to the high silver instruments to watch.

“Just as I looked up at the sky,” remembers a girl who was five years old at the time and safely at home in the suburbs, “there was a flash of white light and the green in the plants looked in that light like the color of dry leaves.”2602

Closer was more brutal illumination. A young woman helping to clear firebreaks, a junior-college student at the time, recalls: “Shortly after the voice of our teacher, saying ‘Oh, there’s a B!’ made us look up at the sky, we felt a tremendous flash of lightning. In an instant we were blinded and everything was just a frenzy of delirium.”2603

Closer still, in the heart of the city, no one survived to report the coming of the light; the constrained witness of investigative groups must serve instead for testimony. A Yale Medical School pathologist working with a joint American-Japanese study commission a few months after the war, Averill A. Liebow, observes:

Accompanying the flash of light was an instantaneous flash of heat . . . Its duration was probably less than one tenth of a second and its intensity was sufficient to cause nearby flammable objects . . . to burst into flame and to char poles as far as 4,000 yards away from the hypocenter [i.e., the point on the ground directly below the fireball]. . . . At 600–700 yards it was sufficient to chip and roughen granite. . . . The heat also produced bubbling of tile to about 1,300 yards. It has been found by experiment that to produce this effect a temperature of [3,000° F] acting for four seconds is necessary, but under these conditions the effect is deeper, which indicates that the temperature was higher and the duration less during the Hiroshima explosion.2604

“Because the heat in [the] flash comes in such a short time,” adds a Manhattan Project study, “there is no time for any cooling to take place, and the temperature of a person’s skin can be raised [120° F] . . . in the first millisecond at a distance of [2.3 miles].”2605

The most authoritative study of the Hiroshima bombing, begun in 1976 in consultation with thirty-four Japanese scientists and physicians, reviews the consequences of this infernal insolation, which at half a mile from the hypocenter was more than three thousand times as energetic as the sunlight that had shimmered on Dr. Hachiya’s leaves:

The temperature at the site of the explosion . . . reached [5,400° F] . . . and primary atomic bomb thermal injury . . . was found in those exposed within [2 miles] of the hypocenter. . . . Primary burns are injuries of a special nature and not ordinarily experienced in everyday life.2606

This Japanese study distinguishes five grades of primary thermal burns ranging from grade one, red burn, through grade three, white burn, to grade five, carbonized skin with charring. It finds that “severe thermal burns of over grade 5 occurred within [0.6 to 1 mile] of the hypocenter . . . and those of grades 1 to 4 [occurred as far as 2 to 2.5 miles] from the hypocenter. . . . Extremely intense thermal energy leads not only to carbonization but also to evaporation of the viscerae.”2607 People exposed within half a mile of the Little Boy fireball, that is, were seared to bundles of smoking black char in a fraction of a second as their internal organs boiled away. “Doctor,” a patient commented to Michihiko Hachiya a few days later, “a human being who has been roasted becomes quite small, doesn’t he?” The small black bundles now stuck to the streets and bridges and sidewalks of Hiroshima numbered in the thousands.2608

At the same instant birds ignited in midair. Mosquitoes and flies, squirrels, family pets crackled and were gone. The fireball flashed an enormous photograph of the city at the instant of its immolation fixed on the mineral, vegetable and animal surfaces of the city itself. A spiral ladder left its shadow in unburned paint on the surface of a steel storage tank. Leaves shielded reverse silhouettes on charred telephone poles. The black-brushed calligraphy burned out of a rice-paper name card posted on a school building door; the dark flowers burned out of a schoolgirl’s light blouse. A human being left the memorial of his outline in unspalled granite on the steps of a bank. Another, pulling a handcart, protected a handcart- and human-shaped surface of asphalt from boiling. Farther away, in the suburbs, the flash induced dark, sunburn-like pigmentation sharply shadowed deep in human skin, streaking the shape of an exposed nose or ear or hand raised in gesture onto the faces and bodies of startled citizens: the mask of Hiroshima, Liebow and his colleagues came to call that pigmentation. They found it persisting unfaded five months after the event.

The world of the dead is a different place from the world of the living and it is hardly possible to visit there. That day in Hiroshima the two worlds nearly converged. “The inundation with death of the area closest to the hypocenter,” writes the American psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, who interviewed survivors at length, “was such that if a man survived within a thousand meters (.6 miles) and was out of doors . . . more than nine tenths of the people around him were fatalities.”2609 Only the living, however inundated, can describe the dead; but where death claimed nine out of ten or, closer to the hypocenter, ten out of ten, a living voice describing necessarily distorts. Survivors are like us; but the dead are radically changed, without voice or civil rights or recourse. Along with their lives they have been deprived of participation in the human world. “There was a fearful silence which made one feel that all people and all trees and vegetation were dead,” remembers Yōko imageta, a Hiroshima writer who survived.2610 The silence was the only sound the dead could make. In what follows among the living, remember them. They were nearer the center of the event; they died because they were members of a different polity and their killing did not therefore count officially as murder; their experience most accurately models the worst case of our common future. They numbered in the majority in Hiroshima that day.

Still only light, not yet blast: Hachiya:

I asked Dr. Koyama what his findings had been in patients with eye injuries.2611

“Those who watched the plane had their eye grounds burned,” he replied. “The flash of light apparently went through the pupils and left them with a blind area in the central portion of their visual fields.

“Most of the eye-ground burns are third degree, so cure is impossible.”

And a German Jesuit priest reporting on one of his brothers in Christ:

Father Kopp . . . was standing in front of the nunnery ready to go home. All of a sudden he became aware of the light, felt that wave of heat, and a large blister formed on his hand.2612

A white burn with the formation of a bleb is a grade-four burn.

Now light and blast together; they seemed simultaneous to those close in. A junior-college girl:

Ah, that instant! I felt as though I had been struck on the back with something like a big hammer, and thrown into boiling oil. . . . I seem to have been blown a good way to the north, and I felt as though the directions were all changed around.2613

The first junior-college girl, the one whose teacher called everyone to look up:

The vicinity was in pitch darkness; from the depths of the gloom, bright red flames rise crackling, and spread moment by moment. The faces of my friends who just before were working energetically are now burned and blistered, their clothes torn to rags; to what shall I liken their trembling appearance as they stagger about? Our teacher is holding her students close to her like a mother hen protecting her chicks, and like baby chicks paralyzed with terror, the students were thrusting their heads under her arms.2614

The light did not burn those who were protected inside buildings, but the blast found them out:

That boy had been in a room at the edge of the river, looking out at the river when the explosion came, and in that instant as the house fell apart he was blown from the end room across the road on the river embankment and landed on the street below it.2615 In that distance he passed through a couple of windows inside the house and his body was stuck full of all the glass it could hold. That is why he was completely covered with blood like that.

The blast wave, rocketing several hundred yards from the hypocenter at 2 miles per second and then slowing to the speed of sound, 1,100 feet per second, threw up a vast cloud of smoke and dust. “My body seemed all black,” a Hiroshima physicist told Lifton, “everything seemed dark, dark all over. . . .2616 Then I thought, ‘The world is ending.’ ” Yōko ōta, the writer, felt the same chill:

I just could not understand why our surroundings had changed so greatly in one instant. . . . I thought it might have been something which had nothing to do with the war, the collapse of the earth which it was said would take place at the end of the world.2617

“Within the city,” notes Hachiya, who was severely injured, “the sky looked as though it had been painted with light sumi [i.e., calligraphy ink], and the people had seen only a sharp, blinding flash of light; while outside the city, the sky was a beautiful, golden yellow and there had been a deafening roar of sound.”2618 Those who experienced the explosion within the city named it pika, flash, and those who experienced it farther away named it pika-don, flash-boom.

The houses fell as if they had been scythed. A fourth-grade boy:

When I opened my eyes after being blown at least eight yards, it was as dark as though I had come up against a black-painted fence. After that, as if thin paper was being peeled off one piece at a time, it gradually began to grow brighter. The first thing that my eyes lighted upon then was the flat stretch of land with only dust clouds rising from it. Everything had crumbled away in that one moment, and changed into streets of rubble, street after street of ruins.2619

Hachiya and his wife ran from their house just before it collapsed and terror opened out into horror:

The shortest path to the street lay through the house next door so through the house we went—running, stumbling, falling, and then running again until in headlong flight we tripped over something and fell sprawling into the street. Getting to my feet, I discovered that I had tripped over a man’s head.2620

“Excuse me! Excuse me, please!” I cried hysterically.

A grocer escaped into the street:

The appearance of people was . . . well, they all had skin blackened by burns. . . . They had no hair because their hair was burned, and at a glance you couldn’t tell whether you were looking at them from in front or in back. . . .2621 They held their arms [in front of them] . . . and their skin—not only on their hands, but on their faces and bodies too—hung down. . . . If there had been only one or two such people . . . perhaps I would not have had such a strong impression. But wherever I walked I met these people. . . . Many of them died along the road—I can still picture them in my mind—like walking ghosts. . . . They didn’t look like people of this world. . . . They had a very special way of walking—very slowly. . . . I myself was one of them.

The peeled skin that hung from the faces and bodies of these severely injured survivors was skin that the thermal flash had instantly blistered and the blast wave had torn loose. A young woman:

I heard a girl’s voice clearly from behind a tree. “Help me, please.” Her back was completely burned and the skin peeled off and was hanging down from her hips. . . .2622

The rescue party . . . brought [my mother] home. Her face was larger than usual, her lips were badly swollen, and her eyes remained closed. The skin of both her hands was hanging loose as if it were rubber gloves. The upper part of her body was badly burned.

A junior-college girl:

On both sides of the road, bedding and pieces of cloth had been carried out and on these were lying people who had been burned to a reddish-black color and whose entire bodies were frightfully swollen. Making their way among them are three high school girls who looked as though they were from our school; their faces and everything were completely burned and they held their arms out in front of their chests like kangaroos with only their hands pointed downward; from their whole bodies something like thin paper is dangling—it is their peeled-off skin which hangs there, and trailing behind them the unburned remnants of their puttees, they stagger exactly like sleepwalkers.2623

A young sociologist:

Everything I saw made a deep impression—a park nearby covered with dead bodies waiting to be cremated . . . very badly injured people evacuated in my direction. . . . The most impressive thing I saw was some girls, very young girls, not only with their clothes torn off but with their skin peeled off as well. . . . My immediate thought was that this was like the hell I had always read about.2624

A five-year-old boy:

That day after we escaped and came to Hijiyama Bridge, there were lots of naked people who were so badly burned that the skin of their whole body was hanging from them like rags.2625

A fourth-grade girl:

The people passing along the street are covered with blood and trailing the rags of their torn clothes after them.2626 The skin of their arms is peeled off and dangling from their finger tips, and they go walking silently, hanging their arms before them.

A five-year-old girl:

People came fleeing from the nearby streets. One after another they were almost unrecognizable. The skin was burned off some of them and was hanging from their hands and from their chins; their faces were red and so swollen that you could hardly tell where their eyes and mouths were. From the houses smoke black enough to scorch the heavens was covering the sky. It was a horrible sight.2627

A fifth-grade boy compiling a list:

The flames which blaze up here and there from the collapsed houses as though to illuminate the darkness. The child making a suffering, groaning sound, his burned face swollen up balloon-like and jerking as he wanders among the fires. The old man, the skin of his face and body peeling off like a potato skin, mumbling prayers while he flees with faltering steps. Another man pressing with both hands the wound from which blood is steadily dripping, rushing around as though he has gone mad and calling the names of his wife and child—ah—my hair seems to stand on end just to remember. This is the way war really looks.2628

But skin peeled by a flash of light and a gust of air was only a novelty among the miseries of that day, something unusual the survivors could remember to remember. The common lot was random, indiscriminate and universal violence inflicting terrible pain, the physics of hydraulics and leverage and heat run riot. A junior-college girl:

Screaming children who have lost sight of their mothers; voices of mothers searching for their little ones; people who can no longer bear the heat, cooling their bodies in cisterns; every one among the fleeing people is dyed red with blood.2629

The thermal flash and the blast started fires and very quickly the fires became a firestorm from which those who could ambulate ran away and those who sustained fractures or were pinned under houses could not; two months later Liebow’s group found the incidence of fractures among Hiroshima survivors to be less than 4.5 percent. “It was not that injuries were few,” the American physicians note; “rather, almost none who had lost the capacity to move escaped the flames.”2630 A five-year-old girl:

The whole city . . . was burning. Black smoke was billowing up and we could hear the sound of big things exploding. . . . Those dreadful streets. The fires were burning. There was a strange smell all over. Blue-green balls of fire were drifting around. I had a terrible lonely feeling that everybody else in the world was dead and only we were still alive.2631

Another girl the same age:

I really have to shudder when I think of that atom bomb which licked away the city of Hiroshima in one or two minutes on the 6th of August, 1945. . . .2632

We were running for our lives. On the way we saw a soldier floating in the river with his stomach all swollen. In desperation he must have jumped into the river to escape from the sea of fire. A little farther on dead people were lined up in a long row. Al little farther on there was a woman lying with a big log fallen across her legs so that she couldn’t get away.

When Father saw that he shouted, “Please come and help!”

But not a single person came to help. They were all too intent on saving themselves.

Finally Father lost his patience, and shouting, “Are you people Japanese or not?” he took a rusty saw and cut off her leg and rescued her.

A little farther on we saw a man who had been burned black as he was walking.

A first-grade girl whose mother was pinned under the wreckage of their house:

I was determined not to escape without my mother.2633 But the flames were steadily spreading and my clothes were already on fire and I couldn’t stand it any longer. So screaming, “Mommy, Mommy!” I ran wildly into the middle of the flames. No matter how far I went it was a sea of fire all around and there was no way to escape. So beside myself I jumped into our [civil defense] water tank. The sparks were falling everywhere so I put a piece of tin over my head to keep out the fire. The water in the tank was hot like a bath. Beside me there were four or five other people who were all calling someone’s name. While I was in the water tank everything became like a dream and sometime or other I became unconscious. . . . Five days after that [I learned that] Mother had finally died just as I had left her.

Similarly a woman who was thirteen at the time who was still haunted by guilt when Lifton interviewed her two decades later:

I left my mother there and went off. . . . I was later told by a neighbor that my mother had been found dead, face down in a water tank . . . very close to the spot where I left her. . . .2634 If I had been a little older or stronger I could have rescued her. . . . Even now I still hear my mother’s voice calling me to help her.

“Beneath the wreckage of the houses along the way,” recounts the Jesuit priest, “many have been trapped and they scream to be rescued from the oncoming flames.”2635

“I was completely amazed,” a third-grade boy remembers of the destruction:2636

While I had been thinking it was only my house that had fallen down, I found that every house in the neighborhood was either completely or half-collapsed. The sky was like twilight. Pieces of paper and cloth were caught on the electric wires. . . . On that street crowds were fleeing toward the west. Among them were many people whose hair was burned, whose clothes were torn and who had burns and injuries. . . . Along the way the road was full to overflowing with victims, some with great wounds, some burned, and some who had lost the strength to move farther. . . . While we were going along the embankment, a muddy rain that was dark and chilly began to fall. Around the houses I noticed automobiles and footballs, and all sorts of household stuff that had been tossed out, but there was no one who stopped to pick up a thing.

But against the background of horror the eye of the survivor persisted in isolating the exceptional. A thirty-five-year-old man:

A woman with her jaw missing and her tongue hanging out of her mouth was wandering around the area of Shinsho-machi in the heavy, black rain.2637 She was heading toward the north crying for help.

A four-year-old boy:

There were a lot of people who were burned to death and among them were some who were burned to a cinder while they were standing up.2638

A sixth-grade boy:

Nearby, as if he were guarding these people, a policeman was standing, all covered with burns and stark naked except for some scraps of his trousers.2639

A seventeen-year-old girl:

I walked past Hiroshima Station . . . and saw people with their bowels and brains coming out. . . . I saw an old lady carrying a suckling infant in her arms. . . . I saw many children . . . with dead mothers. . . . I just cannot put into words the horror I felt.2640

At Aioi Bridge:

I was walking among dead people. . . . It was like hell. The sight of a living horse burning was very striking.2641

A schoolgirl saw “a man without feet, walking on his ankles.”2642 A woman remembers:

A man with his eyes sticking out about two inches called me by name and I felt sick. . . . People’s bodies were tremendously swollen—you can’t imagine how big a human body can swell up.2643

A businessman whose son was killed:

In front of the First Middle School there were . . . many young boys the same age as my son . . . and what moved me most to pity was that there was one dead child lying there and another who seemed to be crawling over him in order to run away, both of them burned to blackness.2644

A thirty-year-old woman:

The corpse lying on its back on the road had been killed immediately. . . . Its hand was lifted to the sky and the fingers were burning with blue flames.2645 The fingers were shortened to one-third and distorted. A dark liquid was running to the ground along the hand.

A third-grade girl:

There was also a person who had a big splinter of wood stuck in his eye—I suppose maybe he couldn’t see—and he was running around blindly.2646

A nineteen-year-old Ujina girl:

I saw for the first time a pile of burned bodies in a water tank by the entrance to the broadcasting station.2647 Then I was suddenly frightened by a terrible sight on the street 40 to 50 meters from Shukkeien Garden. There was a charred body of a woman standing frozen in a running posture with one leg lifted and her baby tightly clutched in her arms. Who on earth could she be?

A first-grade girl:

A streetcar was all burned and just the skeleton of it was left, and inside it all the passengers were burned to a cinder. When I saw that I shuddered all over and started to tremble.2648

“The more you hear the sadder the stories get,” writes a girl who was five years old at Hiroshima.2649 “Since just in my family there is so much sadness from it,” deduces a boy who was also five, “I wonder how much sadness other people must also be having.”2650

Eyes watched as well from the other side. A history professor Lifton interviewed:

I went to look for my family. Somehow I became a pitiless person, because if I had pity, I would not have been able to walk through the city, to walk over those dead bodies. The most impressive thing was the expression in people’s eyes—bodies badly injured which had turned black—their eyes looking for someone to come and help them.2651They looked at me and knew that I was stronger than they. . . . I saw disappointment in their eyes. They looked at me with great expectation, staring right through me. It was very hard to be stared at by those eyes.

Massive pain and suffering and horror everywhere the survivors turned was their common lot. A fifth-grade boy:

I and Mother crawled out from under the house. There we found a world such as I had never seen before, a world I’d never even heard of before. I saw human bodies in such a state that you couldn’t tell whether they were humans or what. . . . There is already a pile of bodies in the road and people are writhing in death agonies.2652

A junior-college girl:

At the base of the bridge, inside a big cistern that had been dug out there, was a mother weeping and holding above her head a naked baby that was burned bright red all over its body, and another mother was crying and sobbing as she gave her burned breast to her baby. In the cistern the students stood with only their heads above the water and their two hands, which they clasped as they imploringly cried and screamed, calling their parents. But every single person who passed was wounded, all of them, and there was no one to turn to for help.2653

A six-year-old boy:

Near the bridge there were a whole lot of dead people.2654 There were some who were burned black and died, and there were others with huge burns who died with their skins bursting, and some others who died all stuck full of broken glass. There were all kinds. Sometimes there were ones who came to us asking for a drink of water. They were bleeding from their faces and from their mouths and they had glass sticking in their bodies. And the bridge itself was burning furiously. . . . The details and the scenes were just like Hell.

Two first-grade girls:

We came out to the Miyuki Bridge. Both sides of the street were piled with burned and injured people. And when we looked back it was a sea of bright red flame.2655


The fire was spreading furiously from one place to the next and the sky was dark with smoke. . . .2656

The [emergency aid station] was jammed with people who had terrible wounds, some whose whole body was one big burn. . . . The flames were spreading in all directions and finally the whole city was one sea of fire and sparks came flying over our heads.

A fifth-grade boy:

I had the feeling that all the human beings on the face of the earth had been killed off, and only the five of us [i.e., his family] were left behind in an uncanny world of the dead. . . . I saw several people plunging their heads into a half-broken water tank and drinking the water. . . . When I was close enough to see inside the tank I said “Oh!” out loud and instinctively drew back. What I had seen in the tank were the faces of monsters reflected from the water dyed red with blood.2657 They had clung to the side of the tank and plunged their heads in to drink and there in that position they had died. From their burned and tattered middy blouses I could tell that they were high school girls, but there was not a hair left on their heads; the broken skin of their burned faces was stained bright red with blood. I could hardly believe that these were human faces.

A physician sharing his horror with Hachiya:

Between the [heavily damaged] Red Cross Hospital and the center of the city I saw nothing that wasn’t burned to a crisp. Streetcars were standing at Kawaya-cho and Kamiya-cho and inside were dozens of bodies, blackened beyond recognition. I saw fire reservoirs filled to the brim with dead people who looked as though they had been boiled alive. In one reservoir I saw a man, horribly burned, crouching beside another man who was dead. He was drinking blood-stained water out of the reservoir. . . .2658 In one reservoir there were so many dead people there wasn’t enough room for them to fall over. They must have died sitting in the water.

A husband helping his wife escape the city:

While taking my severely-wounded wife out to the riverbank by the side of the hill of Nakahiro-machi, I was horrified, indeed, at the sight of a stark naked man standing in the rain with his eyeball in his palm. He looked to be in great pain but there was nothing that I could do for him.2659

The naked man may have been the same victim one of Hachiya’s later visitors remembered noticing, or he may have been another:

There were so many burned [at a first-aid station] that the odor was like drying squid. They looked like boiled octopuses. . . . I saw a man whose eye had been torn out by an injury, and there he stood with his eye resting in the palm of his hand. What made my blood run cold was that it looked like the eye was staring at me.2660

The people ran to the rivers to escape the firestorm; in the testimony of the survivors there is an entire subliterature of the rivers. A third-grade boy:

Men whose whole bodies were covered with blood, and women whose skin hung from them like a kimono, plunged shrieking into the river. All these become corpses and their bodies are carried by the current toward the sea.2661

A first-grade girl:

We were still in the river by evening and it got cold. No matter where you looked there was nothing but burned people all around.2662

A sixth-grade girl:

Bloated corpses were drifting in those seven formerly beautiful rivers; smashing cruelly into bits the childish pleasure of the little girl, the peculiar odor of burning human flesh rose everywhere in the Delta City, which had changed to a waste of scorched earth.2663

A young ship designer whose response to the bombing was to rush home immediately to Nagasaki:

I had to cross the river to reach the station.2664 As I came to the river and went down the bank to the water, I found that the stream was filled with dead bodies. I started to cross by crawling over the corpses, on my hands and knees. As I got about a third of the way across, a dead body began to sink under my weight and I went into the water, wetting my burned skin. It pained severely. I could go no further, as there was a break in the bridge of corpses, so I turned back to the shore.

A third-grade boy:

I got terribly thirsty so I went to the river to drink. From upstream a great many black and burned corpses came floating down the river. I pushed them away and drank the water. At the margin of the river there were corpses lying all over the place.2665

A fifth-grade boy:

The river became not a stream of flowing water but rather a stream of drifting dead bodies. No matter how much I might exaggerate the stories of the burned people who died shrieking and of how the city of Hiroshima was burned to the ground, the facts would still be clearly more terrible.2666

Terrible was what a Hachiya patient found beyond the river:

There was a man, stone dead, sitting on his bicycle as it leaned against a bridge railing. . . . You could tell that many had gone down to the river to get a drink of water and had died where they lay.2667 I saw a few live people still in the water, knocking against the dead as they floated down the river. There must have been hundreds and thousands who fled to the river to escape the fire and then drowned.2668

The sight of the soldiers, though, was more dreadful than the dead people floating down the river. I came onto I don’t know how many, burned from the hips up; and where the skin had peeled, their flesh was wet and mushy. . . .

And they had no faces! Their eyes, noses and mouths had been burned away, and it looked like their ears had melted off. It was hard to tell front from back.

The suffering in the crowded private park of the Asano family was doubled when survivors faced death a second time, another Hachiya confidant saw:

Hundreds of people sought refuge in the Asano Sentei Park. They had refuge from the approaching flames for a little while, but gradually, the fire forced them nearer and nearer the river, until at length everyone was crowded onto the steep bank overlooking the river. . . .

Even though the river is more than one hundred meters wide along the border of the park, balls of fire were being carried through the air from the opposite shore and soon the pine trees in the park were afire. The poor people faced a fiery death if they stayed in the park and a watery grave if they jumped in the river. I could hear shouting and crying, and in a few minutes they began to fall like toppling dominoes into the river. Hundreds upon hundreds jumped or were pushed in the river at this deep, treacherous point and most were drowned.

“Along the streetcar line circling the western border of the park,” adds Hachiya, “they found so many dead and wounded they could hardly walk.”2669

The setting of the sun brought no relief. A fourteen-year-old boy:

Night came and I could hear many voices crying and groaning with pain and begging for water.2670 Someone cried, “Damn it! War tortures so many people who are innocent!” Another said, “I hurt! Give me water!” This person was so burned that we couldn’t tell if it was a man or a woman.

The sky was red with flames. It was burning as if scorching heaven.

A fifth-grade girl:

Everybody in the shelter was crying out loud.2671 Those voices. . . . They aren’t cries, they are moans that penetrate to the marrow of your bones and make your hair stand on end. . . .

I do not know how many times I called begging that they would cut off my burned arms and legs.

A six-year-old boy:

If you think of Brother’s body divided into left and right halves, he was burned on the right side, and on the inside of the left side. . . .2672

That night Brother’s body swelled up terribly badly. He looked just like a bronze Buddha. . . .

[At Danbara High School field hospital] every classroom . . . was full of dreadfully burned people who were lying about or getting up restlessly. They were all painted with mercurochrome and white salve and they looked like red devils and they were waving their arms around like ghosts and groaning and shrieking. Soldiers were dressing their burns.

The next morning, remembers a boy who was five years old at the time, “Hiroshima was all a wasted land.”2673 The Jesuit, coming in from a suburb to aid his brothers, testifies to the extent of the destruction:

The bright day now reveals the frightful picture which last night’s darkness had partly concealed. Where the city stood, everything as far as the eye could reach is a waste of ashes and ruin. Only several skeletons of buildings completely burned out in the interior remain. The banks of the rivers are covered with dead and wounded, and the rising waters have here and there covered some of the corpses.2674 On the broad street in the Hakushima district, naked, burned cadavers are particularly numerous. Among them are the wounded who are still alive. A few have crawled under the burned-out autos and trams. Frightfully injured forms beckon to us and then collapse.

Hachiya corroborates the priest’s report:

The streets were deserted except for the dead. Some looked as if they had been frozen by death while still in the full action of flight; others lay sprawled as though some giant had flung them to their death from a great height. . . .2675

Nothing remained except a few buildings of reinforced concrete. . . . For acres and acres the city was like a desert except for scattered piles of brick and roof tile. I had to revise my meaning of the word destruction or choose some other word to describe what I saw. Devastation may be a better word, but really, I know of no word or words to describe the view.2676

The history professor Lifton interviewed is similarly at a loss:

I climbed Hikiyama Hill and looked down. I saw that Hiroshima had disappeared. . . . I was shocked by the sight. . . . What I felt then and still feel now I just can’t explain with words. Of course I saw many dreadful scenes after that—but that experience, looking down and finding nothing left of Hiroshima—was so shocking that I simply can’t express what I felt. . . . Hiroshima didn’t exist—that was mainly what I saw—Hiroshima just didn’t exist.2677

Without familiar landmarks, the streets filled with rubble, many had difficulty finding their way. For Yōko imageta the city’s history itself had been demolished:

I reached a bridge and saw that the Hiroshima Castle had been completely leveled to the ground, and my heart shook like a great wave. . . .2678 The city of Hiroshima, entirely on flat land, was made three-dimensional by the existence of the white castle, and because of this it could retain a classical flavor. Hiroshima had a history of its own. And when I thought about these things, the grief of stepping over the corpses of history pressed upon my heart.

Of 76,000 buildings in Hiroshima 70,000 were damaged or destroyed, 48,000 totally. “It is no exaggeration to say,” reports the Japanese study, “that the whole city was ruined instantaneously.”2679 Material losses alone equaled the annual incomes of more than 1.1 million people. “In Hiroshima many major facilities—prefectural office, city hall, fire departments, police stations, national railroad stations, post offices, telegram and telephone offices, broadcasting station, and schools—were totally demolished or burned. Streetcars, roads, and electricity, gas, water, and sewage facilities were ruined beyond use. Eighteen emergency hospitals and thirty-two first-aid clinics were destroyed.”2680 Ninety percent of all medical personnel in the city were killed or disabled.


Not many of the survivors worried about buildings; they had all they could do to deal with their injuries and find and cremate their dead, an obligation of particular importance to the Japanese. A man remembers seeing a woman bloody in torn wartimemompeipantaloons, naked above the waist, her child strapped to her back, carrying a soldier’s helmet:

[She was] in search of a place to cremate her dead child. The burned face of the child on her back was infested with maggots. I guess she was thinking of putting her child’s bones in a battle helmet she had picked up. I feared she would have to go far to find burnable material to cremate her child.2681

A young woman who had been in charge of a firebreak group and who was badly burned on one shoulder recalls the mass cremations:

We gathered the dead bodies and made big mountains of the dead and put oil on them and burned them. And people who were unconscious woke up in the piles of the dead when they found themselves burning and came running out.2682

Another Hachiya visitor:

After a couple of days, there were so many bodies stacked up no one knew who was who, and decomposition was so extensive the smell was unbearable. During those days, wherever you went, there were so many dead lying around it was impossible to walk without encountering them—swollen, discolored bodies with froth oozing from their noses and mouths.2683

A first-grade girl:

On the morning of the 9th, what the soldiers on the clearance team lifted out of the ruins was the very much changed shape of Father. The Civil Defense post [where he worked] was at Yasuda near Kyobashi, in front of the tall chimney that was demolished last year. He must have died there at the foot of it; his head was already just a white skull. . . . Mother and my little sister and I, without thinking, clutched that dead body and wailed. After that Mother went with it to the crematory at Matsukawa where she found corpses piled up like a mountain.2684

Having moved his hospital sickbed to a second-floor room with blown-out windows that fire had sterilized, Hachiya himself could view and smell the ruins:

Towards evening, a light southerly wind blowing across the city wafted to us an odor suggestive of burning sardines. . . . Towards Nigitsu was an especially large fire where the dead were being burned by the hundreds. . . . These glowing ruins and the blazing funeral pyres set me to wondering if Pompeii had not looked like this during its last days. But I think there were not so many dead in Pompeii as there were in Hiroshima.2685

Those who did not die seemed for a time to improve. But then, explains Lifton, they sickened:

Survivors began to notice in themselves and others a strange form of illness. It consisted of nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite; diarrhea with large amounts of blood in the stools; fever and weakness; purple spots on various parts of the body from bleeding into the skin . . . inflammation and ulceration of the mouth, throat and gums . . . bleeding from the mouth, gums, throat, rectum, and urinary tract . . . loss of hair from the scalp and other parts of the body . . . extremely low white blood cell counts when those were taken . . . and in many cases a progressive course until death.2686

Only gradually did the few surviving and overworked Japanese doctors realize that they were seeing radiation sickness; “atomic bomb illness,” explains the authoritative Japanese study, “is the first and only example of heavy lethal and momentary doses of whole body irradiation” in the history of medicine.2687 A few human beings had been accidentally overexposed to X rays and laboratory animals had been exposed and sacrificed for study but no large population had ever experienced so extensive and deadly an assault of ionizing radiation before.

The radiation brought further suffering, Hachiya reports in his diary:

Following the pika, we thought that by giving treatment to those who were burned or injured recovery would follow.2688 But now it was obvious that this was not true. People who appeared to be recovering developed other symptoms that caused them to die. So many patients died without our understanding the cause of death that we were all in despair. . . .

Hundreds of patients died during the first few days; then the death rate declined. Now, it was increasing again. . . . As time passed, anorexia [i.e., loss of appetite] and diarrhea proved to be the most persistent symptoms in patients who failed to recover.

Direct gamma radiation from the bomb had damaged tissue throughout the bodies of the exposed.2689 The destruction required cell division to manifest itself, but radiation temporarily suppresses cell division; hence the delayed onset of symptoms. The blood-forming tissues were damaged worst, particularly those that produce the white blood cells that fight infection. Large doses of radiation also stimulate the production of an anticlotting factor.2690 The outcome of these assaults was massive tissue death, massive hemorrhage and massive infection. “Hemorrhage was the cause of death in all our cases,” writes Hachiya, but he also notes that the pathologist at his hospital “found changes in every organ of the body in the cases he . . . autopsied.”2691, 2692 Liebow reports “evidence of generalization of infection with masses of bacteria in . . . organs as remote from the surface [of the body] as the brain, bone marrow and eye.”2693 The operator of a crematorium in the Hiroshima suburbs, a connoisseur of mortality, told Lifton “the bodies were black in color . . . most of them had a peculiar smell, and everyone thought this was from the bomb. . . . The smell when they burned was caused by the fact that these bodies were decayed, many of them even before being cremated—some of them having their internal organs decay even while the person was living.”2694 Yōko imageta raged:

We were being killed against our will by something completely unknown to us. . . . It is the misery of being thrown into a world of new terror and fear, a world more unknown than that of people sick with cancer.2695

In the depths of his loss a boy who was a fourth-grader at Hiroshima found words for the unspeakable:

Mother was completely bedridden. The hair of her head had almost all fallen out, her chest was festering, and from the two-inch hole in her back a lot of maggots were crawling in and out. The place was full of flies and mosquitoes and fleas, and an awfully bad smell hung over everything. Everywhere I looked there were many people like this who couldn’t move. From the evening when we arrived Mother’s condition got worse and we seemed to see her weakening before our eyes. Because all night long she was having trouble breathing, we did everything we could to relieve her. The next morning Grandmother and I fixed some gruel. As we took it to Mother, she breathed her last breath. When we thought she had stopped breathing altogether, she took one deep breath and did not breathe any more after that. This was nine o’clock in the morning of the 19th of August. At the site of the Japan Red Cross Hospital, the smell of the bodies being cremated is overpowering. Too much sorrow makes me like a stranger to myself, and yet despite my grief I cannot cry.2696

Not human beings alone died at Hiroshima. Something else was destroyed as well, the Japanese study explains—that shared life Hannah Arendt calls the common world:

In the case of an atomic bombing . . . a community does not merely receive an impact; the community itself is destroyed.2697 Within 2 kilometers of the atomic bomb’s hypocenter all life and property were shattered, burned, and buried under ashes. The visible forms of the city where people once carried on their daily lives vanished without a trace. The destruction was sudden and thorough; there was virtually no chance to escape. . . . Citizens who had lost no family members in the holocaust were as rare as stars at sunrise. . . .

The atomic bomb had blasted and burned hospitals, schools, city offices, police stations, and every other kind of human organization. . . . Family, relatives, neighbors, and friends relied on a broad range of interdependent organizations for everything from birth, marriage, and funerals to firefighting, productive work, and daily living. These traditional communities were completely demolished in an instant.

Destroyed, that is, were not only men, women and thousands of children but also restaurants and inns, laundries, theater groups, sports clubs, sewing clubs, boys’ clubs, girls’ clubs, love affairs, trees and gardens, grass, gates, gravestones, temples and shrines, family heirlooms, radios, classmates, books, courts of law, clothes, pets, groceries and markets, telephones, personal letters, automobiles, bicycles, horses—120 war-horses—musical instruments, medicines and medical equipment, life savings, eyeglasses, city records, sidewalks, family scrapbooks, monuments, engagements, marriages, employees, clocks and watches, public transportation, street signs, parents, works of art. “The whole of society,” concludes the Japanese study, “was laid waste to its very foundations.”2698 Lifton’s history professor saw not even foundations left. “Such a weapon,” he told the American psychiatrist, “has the power to make everything into nothing.”2699

There remains the question of how many died. The U.S. Army Medical Corps officer who proposed the joint American-Japanese study to Douglas MacArthur thought as late as August 28 that “the total number of casualties reported at Hiroshima is approximately 160,000 of which 8,000 are dead.”2700 The Jesuit priest’s contemporary reckoning approaches the appalling reality and illuminates further the destruction of the common world:

How many people were a sacrifice to this bomb? Those who had lived through the catastrophe placed the number of dead at at least 100,000. Hiroshima had a population of 400,000. Official statistics place the number who had died at 70,000 up to September 1st, not counting the missing—and 130,000 wounded, among them 43,500 severely wounded. Estimates made by ourselves on the basis of groups known to us show that the number of 100,000 dead is not too high. Near us there are two barracks, in each of which forty Korean workers lived. On the day of the explosion they were laboring on the streets of Hiroshima.2701 Four returned alive to one barracks and sixteen to the other. Six hundred students of the Protestant girls’ school worked in a factory, from which only thirty or forty returned. Most of the peasant families in the neighborhood lost one or more of their members who had worked at factories in the city. Our next door neighbor, Tamura, lost two children and himself suffered a large wound since, as it happened, he had been in the city on that day. The family of our reader suffered two dead, father and son; thus a family of five members suffered at least two losses, counting only the dead and severely wounded. There died the mayor, the president of the central Japan district, the commander of the city, a Korean prince who had been stationed in Hiroshima in the capacity of an officer, and many other high-ranking officers. Of the professors of the University thirty-two were killed or severely wounded. Especially hard-hit were the soldiers. The Pioneer Regiment was almost entirely wiped out. The barracks were near the center of the explosion.

More recent estimates place the number of deaths up to the end of 1945 at 140,000. The dying continued; five-year deaths related to the bombing reached 200,000. The death rate for deaths up to the end of 1945 was 54 percent, an extraordinary density of killing; by contrast, the death rate for the March 9 firebombing of Tokyo, 100,000 deaths among 1 million casualties, was only 10 percent. Back at the U.S. Army Institute of Pathology in Washington in early 1946 Liebow used a British invention, the Standardized Casualty Rate, to compute that Little Boy produced casualties, including dead, 6,500 times more efficiently than an ordinary HE bomb.2702 “Those scientists who invented the . . . atomic bomb,” writes a young woman who was a fourth-grade student at Hiroshima—“what did they think would happen if they dropped it?”2703

Harry Truman learned of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima at lunch on board the Augusta en route home from Potsdam. “This is the greatest thing in history,” he told a group of sailors dining at his table. “It’s time for us to get home.”2704

Groves called Oppenheimer from Washington on August 6 at two in the afternoon to pass along the news:

Gen. G:

I’m very proud of you and all of your people.

Dr. O:

It went all right?

Gen. G:

Apparently it went with a tremendous bang.

Dr. O:

When was this, was it after sundown?

Gen. G:

No, unfortunately, it had to be in the daytime on account of security of the plane and that was left in the hands of the Commanding General over there. . . .

Dr. O:

Right. Everybody is feeling reasonably good about it and I extend my heartiest congratulations. It’s been a long road.

Gen. G:

Yes, it has been a long road and I think one of the wisest things I ever did was when I selected the director of Los Alamos.

Dr. O:

Well, I have my doubts, General Groves.

Gen. G:

Well, you know I’ve never concurred with those doubts at any time.2705

If Oppenheimer, who knew nothing yet of the extent of the destruction, was only feeling “reasonably good” about his handiwork, Leo Szilard felt terrible when the story broke. The press release issued from the White House that day called the atomic bomb “the greatest achievement of organized science in history” and threatened the Japanese with “a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”2706 In Chicago on Quadrangle Club stationery Szilard scribbled a hasty letter to Gertrud Weiss:

I suppose you have seen today’s newspapers. Using atomic bombs against Japan is one of the greatest blunders of history. Both from a practical point of view on a 10-year scale and from the point of view of our moral position. I went out of my way and very much so in order to prevent it but as today’s papers show without success. It is very difficult to see what wise course of action is possible from here on.2707

Otto Hahn, interned with the German atomic scientists on a rural estate in England, was shattered:

At first I refused to believe that this could be true, but in the end I had to face the fact that it was officially confirmed by the President of the United States. I was shocked and depressed beyond measure. The thought of the unspeakable misery of countless innocent women and children was something that I could scarcely bear.2708

After I had been given some gin to quiet my nerves, my fellow-prisoners were also told the news. . . . By the end of a long evening of discussion, attempts at explanation, and self-reproaches I was so agitated that Max von Laue and the others became seriously concerned on my behalf. They ceased worrying only at two o’clock in the morning, when they saw that I was asleep.

But if some were disturbed by the news, others were elated, Otto Frisch found at Los Alamos:

Then one day, some three weeks after [Trinity], there was a sudden noise in the laboratory, of running footsteps and yelling voices.2709 Somebody opened my door and shouted, “Hiroshima has been destroyed!”; about a hundred thousand people were thought to have been killed. I still remember the feeling of unease, indeed nausea, when I saw how many of my friends were rushing to the telephone to book tables at the La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, in order to celebrate. Of course they were exalted by the success of their work, but it seemed rather ghoulish to celebrate the sudden death of a hundred thousand people, even if they were “enemies.”

The American writer Paul Fussell, an Army veteran, emphasizes “the importance of experience, sheer vulgar experience, in influencing one’s views about the first use of the bomb.”2710 The experience Fussell means is “that of having come to grips, face to face, with an enemy who designs your death”:

I was a 21-year-old second lieutenant leading a rifle platoon. Although still officially in one piece, in the German war I had been wounded in the leg and back severely enough to be adjudged, after the war, 40 percent disabled. But even if my leg buckled whenever I jumped out of the back of the truck, my condition was held to be satisfactory for whatever lay ahead. When the bombs dropped and news began to circulate that [the invasion of Japan] would not, after all, take place, that we would not be obliged to run up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being mortared and shelled, for all the fake manliness of our facades we cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow up to adulthood after all.

In Japan the impasse persisted between civilian and military leaders. To the civilians the atomic bomb looked like a golden opportunity to surrender without shame, but the admirals and the generals still despised unconditional surrender and refused to concur. Foreign Minister Togo continued to pursue Soviet mediation as late as August 8. Ambassador Sato asked for a meeting with Molotov that day; Molotov set the meeting for eight in the evening, then moved it up to five o’clock. Despite earlier notice of the power of the new weapon, news of the devastation of a Japanese city by an American atomic bomb had surprised and shocked Stalin and prompted him to accelerate his war plans; Molotov announced that afternoon to the Japanese ambassador that the Soviet Union would consider itself at war with Japan as of the next day, August 9. Well-armed Soviet troops, 1.6 million strong, waited in readiness on the Manchurian border and attacked the ragged Japanese an hour after midnight.

In the meantime a progaganda effort that originated in the U.S. War Department was developing in the Marianas.2711 Hap Arnold cabled Spaatz and Farrell on August 7 ordering a crash program to impress the facts of atomic warfare on the Japanese people. The impetus probably came from George Marshall, who was surprised and shocked that the Japanese had not immediately sued for peace. “What we did not take into account,” he said long afterward, “ . . . was that the destruction would be so complete that it would be an appreciable time before the actual facts of the case would get to Tokyo.2712 The destruction of Hiroshima was so complete that there was no communication at least for a day, I think, and maybe longer.”

The Navy and the Air Force both lent staff and facilities, including Radio Saipan and a printing press previously used to publish a Japaneselanguage newspaper distributed weekly over the Empire by B-29s. The working group that assembled on August 7 in the Marianas decided to attempt to distribute 6 million leaflets to forty-seven Japanese cities with populations exceeding 100,000. Writing the leaflet occupied the group through the night. A historical memorandum prepared for Groves in 1946 notes that the working group discovered in a midnight conference with Air Force commanders “a certain reluctance to fly single B-29’s over the Empire, reluctance arising from the fact that enemy opposition to single flights was expected to be increased as the result of the total damage to Hiroshima by one airplane.”2713

The proposed text of the leaflet was ready by morning and was flown from Saipan to Tinian at dawn for Farrell’s approval. Groves’ deputy edited it and ordered the revised text called to Radio Saipan by inter-island telephone for broadcast to the Japanese every fifteen minutes; radio transmission probably began the same day. The text described the atomic bomb as “the equivalent in explosive power to what 2,000 of our giant B-29’s can carry on a single mission,” suggested skeptics “make inquiry as to what happened to Hiroshima” and asked the Japanese people to “petition the Emperor to end the war.” Otherwise, it threatened, “we shall resolutely employ this bomb and all our other superior weapons.”2714 Printing millions of copies of a leaflet took time, and distribution was delayed some hours further by a local shortage of T-3 leaflet bombs. Such was the general confusion that Nagasaki did not receive its quota of warning leaflets until August 10.2715

Assembly of Fat Man unit F31 was progressing at Tinian in the airconditioned assembly building designed for that purpose. F31 was the second Fat Man with real high explosives that the Tinian team had assembled; the first, with lower-quality HE castings and a non-nuclear core, unit F33, had been ready since August 5 for a test drop but would not be dropped until August 8 because the key 509th crews were busy delivering Little Boy and being debriefed. The F31 Fat Man, Norman Ramsey writes,

was originally scheduled for dropping on August 11 local time. . . . However, by August 7 it became apparent that the schedule could be advanced to August 10.2716 When Parsons and Ramsey proposed this change to Tibbets, he expressed regret that the schedule could not be advanced two days instead of only one since good weather was forecast for August 9 and the five succeeding days were expected to be bad. It was finally agreed that [we] would try to be ready for August 9 provided all concerned understood that the advancement of the date by two full days introduced a large measure of uncertainty into the probability of meeting such a drastically revised schedule.

One member of the Fat Man assembly team, a young Navy ensign named Bernard J. O’Keefe, remembers the mood of urgency in the Marianas, where the war was still a daily threat:

With the success of the Hiroshima weapon, the pressure to be ready with the much more complex implosion device became excruciating.2717 We sliced off another day, scheduling it for August 10. Everyone felt that the sooner we could get off another mission, the more likely it was that the Japanese would feel that we had large quantities of the devices and would surrender sooner. We were certain that one day saved would mean that the war would be over one day sooner. Living on that island, with planes going out every night and people dying not only in B-29s shot down, but in naval engagements all over the Pacific, we knew the importance of one day; the Indianapolissinking also had a strong effect on us.

Despite that urgency, O’Keefe adds, August 9 sat less well; “the scientific staff, dog-tired, met and warned Parsons that cutting two full days would prevent us from completing a number of important checkout procedures, but orders were orders.”

The young Providence, Rhode Island, native had been a student at George Washington University in 1939 and had attended the conference there on January 25 at which Niels Bohr announced the discovery of fission. Now on Tinian more than six years later, on the night of August 7, it became O’Keefe’s task to check out Fat Man for the last time before its working parts were encased beyond easy access in armor. In particular, he was required to connect the firing unit mounted on the front of the implosion sphere with the four radar units mounted in the tail by plugging in a cable inaccessibly threaded around the sphere inside its dural casing:

When I returned at midnight, the others in my group left to get some sleep; I was alone in the assembly room with a single Army technician to make the final connection. . . .2718

I did my final checkout and reached for the cable to plug it into the firing unit. It wouldn’t fit!

“I must be doing something wrong,” I thought. “Go slowly; you’re tired and not thinking straight.”

I looked again. To my horror, there was a female plug on the firing set and a female plug on the cable. I walked around the weapon and looked at the radars and the other end of the cable. Two male plugs. . . . I checked and double-checked. I had the technician check; he verified my findings. I felt a chill and started to sweat in the air-conditioned room.

What had happened was obvious. In the rush to take advantage of good weather, someone had gotten careless and put the cable in backward.

Removing the cable and reversing it would mean partly disassembling the implosion sphere. It had taken most of a day to assemble it. They would miss the window of good weather and slip into the five days of bad weather that had worried Paul Tibbets. The second atomic bomb might be delayed as long as a week. The war would go on, O’Keefe thought. He decided to improvise. Although “nothing that could generate heat was ever allowed in an explosive assembly room,” he determined to “unsolder the connectors from the two ends of the cable, reverse them, and resolder them”:2719

My mind was made up. I was going to change the plugs without talking to anyone, rules or no rules. I called in the technician. There were no electrical outlets in the assembly room. We went out to the electronics lab and found two long extension cords and a soldering iron. We . . . propped the door open so it wouldn’t pinch the extension cords (another safety violation). I carefully removed the backs of the connectors and unsoldered the wires. I resoldered the plugs onto the other ends of the cable, keeping as much distance between the soldering iron and the detonators as I could as I walked around the weapon. . . . We must have checked the cable continuity five times before plugging the connectors into the radars and the firing set and tightening up the joints. I was finished.2720

So, the next day, was Fat Man, the two armored steel ellipsoids of its ballistic casing bolted together through bathtub fittings to lugs cast into the equatorial segments of the implosion sphere, its boxed tail sprouting radar antennae just as Little Boy’s had done. By 2200 on August 8 it had been loaded into the forward bomb bay of a B-29 named Bock’s Car after its usual commander, Frederick Bock, but piloted on this occasion by Major Charles W. Sweeney. Sweeney’s primary target was Kokura Arsenal on the north coast of Kyushu; his secondary was the old Portuguese- and Dutchinfluenced port city of Nagasaki, the San Francisco of Japan, home of that country’s largest colony of Christians, where the Mitsubishi torpedoes used at Pearl Harbor had been made.

Bock’s Car flew off Tinian at 0347 on August 9.2721 The Fat Man weaponeer, Navy Commander Frederick L. Ashworth, remembers the flight to rendezvous:

The night of our takeoff was one of tropical rain squalls, and flashes of lightning stabbed into the darkness with disconcerting regularity. The weather forecast told us of storms all the way from the Marianas to the Empire.2722 Our rendezvous was to be off the southeast coast of Kyushu, some fifteen hundred miles away. There we were to join with our two companion observation B-29s that took off a few minutes behind us.

Fat Man was fully armed at takeoff except for its green plugs, which Ashworth changed to red only ten minutes into the mission so that Sweeney could cruise above the squalls at 17,000 feet, St. Elmo’s fire glowing on the propellers of his plane.2723 The pilot soon discovered he would enjoy no reserve of fuel; the fuel selector that would allow him to feed his engines from a 600-gallon tank of gasoline in his aft bomb bay refused to work. He circled over Yakoshima between 0800 and 0850 Japanese time waiting for his escorts, one of which never did catch up. The finger plane at Kokura reported three-tenths low clouds, no intermediate or high clouds and improving conditions, but when Bock’s Car arrived there at 1044 heavy ground haze and smoke obscured the target. “Two additional runs were made,” Ashworth notes in his flight log, “hoping that the target might be picked up after closer observation.2724 However, at no time was the aiming point seen.”

Jacob Beser controlled electronic countermeasures on the Fat Man mission as he had done on the Little Boy mission before. He remembers of Kokura that “the Japs started to get curious and began sending fighters up after us. We had some flak bursts and things were getting a little hairy, so Ashworth and Sweeney decided to make a run down to Nagasaki, as there was no sense dragging the bomb home or dropping it in the ocean.”2725

Sweeney had enough fuel left for only one pass over the target before nursing his aircraft to an emergency landing on Okinawa. When he approached Nagasaki he found the city covered with cloud; with his fuel low he could either bomb by radar or jettison a bomb worth several hundred million dollars into the sea. It was Ashworth’s call and rather than waste the bomb he authorized a radar approach. At the last minute a hole opened in the cloud cover long enough to give the bombardier a twenty-second visual run on a stadium several miles upriver from the original aiming point nearer the bay. Fat Man dropped from the B-29, fell through the hole and exploded 1,650 feet above the steep slopes of the city at 11:02 A.M., August 9, 1945, with a force later estimated at 22 kilotons. The steep hills confined the larger explosion; it caused less damage and less loss of life than Little Boy.

But 70,000 died in Nagasaki by the end of 1945 and 140,000 altogether across the next five years, a death rate like Hiroshima’s of 54 percent. The survivors spoke with equal eloquence of unspeakable suffering. A U.S. Navy officer visited the city in mid-September and described its condition then, more than a month after the bombing, in a letter home to his wife:


A smell of death and corruption pervades the place, ranging from the ordinary carrion smell to somewhat subtler stenches with strong overtones of ammonia (decomposing nitrogenous matter, I suppose).2726 The general impression, which transcends those derived from the evidence of our physical senses, is one of deadness, the absolute essence of death in the sense of finality without hope of resurrection. And all this is not localized. It’s everywhere, and nothing has escaped its touch. In most ruined cities you can bury the dead, clean up the rubble, rebuild the houses and have a living city again. One feels that is not so here. Like the ancient Sodom and Gomorrah, its site has been sown with salt and ichabod1 is written over its gates.

The military leaders of Japan had still not agreed to surrender.2727 The Emperor Hirohito therefore took the extraordinary step of forcing the issue. The resulting surrender offer, delivered through Switzerland, reached Washington on Friday morning, August 10. It acknowledged acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration except in one crucial regard: that it “does not comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign Ruler.”2728

Truman met immediately with his advisers, including Stimson and Byrnes. Stimson thought the President would accept the Japanese offer; doing so, he wrote in his diary, would be “taking a good plain horse sense position that the question of the Emperor was a minor matter compared with delaying a victory in the war which was now in our hands.”2729 Jimmy Byrnes persuasively disagreed. “I cannot understand,” he argued, “why we should go further than we were willing to go at Potsdam when we had no atomic bomb, and Russia was not in the war.”2730 He was thinking as usual of domestic politics; accepting Japan’s condition, he warned, might mean the “crucifixion of the President.”2731 Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal proposed a compromise: the President should communicate to the Japanese his “willingness to accept [their offer], yet define the terms of surrender in such a manner that the intents and purposes of the Potsdam Declaration would be clearly accomplished.”2732

Truman bought the compromise but Byrnes drafted the reply. It was deliberately ambiguous in its key provisions:

From the moment of surrender the authority of the Emperor and the Japanese Government to rule the state shall be subject to the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers. . . .

The Emperor and the Japanese High Command will be required to sign the surrender terms. . . .

The ultimate form of government shall, in accordance with the Potsdam Declaration, be established by the freely expressed will of the Japanese people.

Nor did Byrnes hurry the message along; he kept it in hand overnight and only released it for broadcast by radio and delivery through Switzerland the following morning.

Stimson, still trying to bring his Air Force under control, had argued at the Friday morning meeting that the United States should suspend bombing, including atomic bombing. Truman thought otherwise, but when he met with the cabinet that afternoon he had partly reconsidered. “We would keep up the war at its present intensity,” Forrestal paraphrases the President, “until the Japanese agreed to these terms, with the limitation however that there will be no further dropping of the atomic bomb.”2733, 2734 Henry Wallace, the former Vice President who was now Secretary of Commerce, recorded in his diary the reason for the President’s change of mind:

Truman said he had given orders to stop the atomic bombing. He said the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible. He didn’t like the idea of killing, as he said, “all those kids.”2735

The restriction came none too soon. Groves had reported to Marshall that morning that he had gained four days in manufacture and expected to ship a second Fat Man plutonium core and initiator from New Mexico to Tinian on August 12 or 13. “Provided there are no unforeseen difficulties in manufacture, in transportation to the theatre or after arrival in the theatre,” he concluded cautiously, “the bomb should be ready for delivery on the first suitable weather after 17 or 18 August.”2736 Marshall told Groves the President wanted no further atomic bombing except by his express order and Groves decided to hold up shipment, a decision in which Marshall concurred.

The Japanese government learned of Byrnes’ reply to its offer of conditional surrender not long after midnight on Sunday, August 12, but civilian and military leaders continued to struggle in deadlocked debate. Hirohito resisted efforts to persuade him to reverse his earlier commitment to surrender and called a council of the imperial family to collect pledges of support from the princes of the blood. The Japanese people were not yet told of the Byrnes reply but knew of the peace negotiations and waited in suspense. The young writer Yukio Mishima found the suspense surreal:

It was our last chance. People were saying that Tokyo would be [atomicbombed] next. Wearing white shirts and shorts, I walked about the streets. The people had reached the limits of desperation and were now going about their affairs with cheerful faces.2737 From one moment to the next, nothing happened. Everywhere there was an air of cheerful excitement. It was just as though one was continuing to blow up an already bulging toy balloon, wondering: “Will it burst now? Will it burst now?”

Strategic Air Forces commander Carl Spaatz cabled Lauris Norstad on August 10 proposing “placing [the] third atomic bomb . . . on Tokyo,” where he thought it would have a salutary “psychological effect on government officials.”2738 On the other hand, continuing area incendiary bombing disturbed him; “I have never favored the destruction of cities as such with all inhabitants being killed,” he confided to his diary on August 11. He had sent off 114 B-29’s on August 10; because of bad weather and misgivings he canceled a mission scheduled for August 11 and restricted operations thereafter to “attacks on military targets visually or under very favorable blind bombing conditions.” American weather planes over Tokyo were no longer drawing anti-aircraft fire; Spaatz thought that fact “unusual.”2739

The vice chief of the Japanese Navy’s general staff, the man who had conceived and promoted the kamikaze attacks of the past year that had added to American bewilderment and embitterment at Japanese ways, crashed a meeting of government leaders on the evening of August 13 with tears in his eyes to offer “a plan for certain victory”: “sacrifice 20,000,000 Japanese lives in a special [kamikaze] attack.”2740 Whether he meant the 20 million to attack the assembled might of the Allies with rocks or bamboo spears the record does not reveal.

A B-29 leaflet barrage forced the issue the next morning. Leaflet bombs showered what remained of Tokyo’s streets with a translation of Byrnes’ reply. The Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal knew such public revelation would harden the military against surrender. He carried the leaflet immediately to the Emperor and just before eleven that morning, August 14, Hirohito assembled his ministers and counselors in the imperial air raid shelter. He told them he found the Allied reply “evidence of the peaceful and friendly intentions of the enemy” and considered it “acceptable.”2741 He did not specifically mention the atomic bomb; even that terrific leviathan submerged in the general misery:

I cannot endure the thought of letting my people suffer any longer. A continuation of the war would bring death to tens, perhaps even hundreds, of thousands of persons. The whole nation would be reduced to ashes. How then could I carry on the wishes of my imperial ancestors?

He asked his ministers to prepare an imperial rescript—a formal edict—that he might broadcast personally to the nation. The officials were not legally bound to do so—the Emperor’s authority lay outside the legal structure of the government—but by older and deeper bonds than law they were bound, and they set to work.

In the meantime Washington had grown impatient. Groves was asked on August 13 about “the availability of your patients together with the time estimate that they could be moved and placed.”2742 Stimson recommended proceeding to ship the nuclear materials for the third bomb to Tinian. Marshall and Groves decided to wait another day or two. Truman ordered Arnold to resume area incendiary attacks. Arnold still hoped to prove that his Air Force could win the war; he called for an all-out attack with every available B-29 and any other bombers in the Pacific theater and mustered more than a thousand aircraft. Twelve million pounds of high-explosive and incendiary bombs destroyed half of Kumagaya and a sixth of Isezaki, killing several thousand more Japanese, even as word of the Japanese surrender passed through Switzerland to Washington.

The first hint of surrender reached American bases in the Pacific by radio in the form of a news bulletin from the Japanese news agency Dōmei at 2:49 P.M. on August 14—1:49 A.M. in Washington:

Flash! Flash! Tokyo, Aug. 14—It is learned an imperial message accepting the Potsdam Proclamation is forthcoming soon.2743

The bombers droned on even after that, but eventually that day the bombs stopped falling. Truman announced the Japanese acceptance in the afternoon. There were last-minute acts of military rebellion in Tokyo—a high officer assassinated, an unsuccessful attempt to steal the phonograph recording of the imperial rescript, a brief takeover of a division of Imperial Guards, wild plans for a coup. But loyalty prevailed. The Emperor broadcast to a weeping nation on August 15; his 100 million subjects had never heard the high, antique Voice of the Crane before:

Despite the best that has been done by everyone . . . the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan’s advantage, while the general trends of the world have all turned against her interest.2744 Moreover, the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is indeed incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. . . . This is the reason why We have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint declaration of the Powers. . . .

The hardships and sufferings to which Our nation is to be subjected hereafter will be certainly great. We are keenly aware of the inmost feelings of all ye, Our subjects. However, it is according to the dictate of time and fate that We have resolved to pave the way for a grand peace for all generations to come by enduring the unendurable and suffering what is insufferable. . . .

Let the entire nation continue as one family from generation to generation.

“If it had gone on any longer,” writes Yukio Mishima, “there would have been nothing to do but go mad.”2745

“An atomic bomb,” the Japanese study of Hiroshima and Nagasaki emphasizes, “ . . . is a weapon of mass slaughter.”2746 A nuclear weapon is in fact a total-death machine, compact and efficient, as a simple graph prepared from Hiroshima statistics demonstrates:


The percentage of people killed depends simply on distance from the hypocenter; the relation between death percentage and distance is inversely proportional and the killing, as Gil Elliot emphasizes, is no longer selective:

By the time we reach the atom bomb, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the ease of access to target and the instant nature of macro-impact mean that both the choice of city and the identity of the victim has become completely randomized, and human technology has reached the final platform of self-destructiveness.2747 The great cities of the dead, in numbers, remain Verdun, Leningrad and Auschwitz. But at Hiroshima and Nagasaki the “city of the dead” is finally transformed from a metaphor into a literal reality. The city of the dead of the future is our city and its victims are—not French and German soldiers, nor Russian citizens, nor Jews—but all of us without reference to specific identity.

“The experience of these two cities,” the Japanese study emphasizes, “was the opening chapter to the possible annihilation of mankind.”2748

On August 24, having recently heard about the man holding an eyeball, Dr. Michihiko Hachiya suffered a nightmare. Like the myth of the Sphinx—destruction to those who cannot answer its riddle, whom ignorance or inattention or arrogance misleads—the dream of this Japanese doctor who was wounded in the world’s first atomic bombing and who ministered to hundreds of victims must be counted one of the millennial visions of mankind:

The night had been close with many mosquitoes. Consequently, I slept poorly and had a frightful dream.2749

It seems I was in Tokyo after the great earthquake and around me were decomposing bodies heaped in piles, all of whom were looking right at me. I saw an eye sitting on the palm of a girl’s hand. Suddenly it turned and leaped into the sky and then came flying back towards me, so that, looking up, I could see a great bare eyeball, bigger than life, hovering over my head, staring point blank at me. I was powerless to move.

“I awakened short of breath and with my heart pounding,” Michihiko Hachiya remembers.

So do we all.

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